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Genetically-modified seeds come back to haunt agriculturists

October 21, 2014


.—AP file photo
.—AP file photo
.—AFP file photo
.—AFP file photo
.—AFP file photo
.—AFP file photo

ISLAMABAD: With a parliamentary committee approving an amendment to the Seed Act 1976, fear of foreign ‘genetically modified’ (GM) seeds has returned to haunt the agriculturists of the country after 10 years.

“We are writing to the Ministry for Food Security and Research to discuss the changes before placing the amendment bill in the parliament,” Salman Mehmood, executive member of the Seed Association of Pakistan (SAP) told Dawn.

Also read: Court stops regulator from issuing licences for ‘modified’ seeds

His worry was that it might open the country to unrestricted import of GM seeds for which multinational seed companies have been aggressively lobbying for decades.

Agriculture experts believe the Seed Amendment Bill 2014, approved by the federal cabinet in May and the Standing Committee of the National Assembly on Food Security And Research on October 15, endorses import of genetically modified seeds - without any procedural or testing hurdles - of corn, vegetable, fruit, rice and other crops controlled by multinational seed companies.

“That would open the doors on foreign seeds of questionable quality and adaptability in our local agro climatic conditions,” said a senior agriculture scientist of the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council.

Ministry for Food Security and Research to be contacted to discuss changes before the bill is placed in parliament

“Under the ‘Truth in Labeling’ clause of the 1991 Convention on Intellectual Property, the government accepts whatever is printed on imported seed packing and declared in documents,” he said.

That raises the risk of importing foreign crop diseases also, something that local farmers cannot afford.

Another concern was that cotton is a strategic crop for Pakistan’s economy and free import of cotton seed from India and China may hurt it. At present there is a complete ban on import of cotton seed in large quantity.

Know more: Regulatory system urged for GM crops

Experts say that the germ plasm variety of seed produced in local agro-climatic condition is considered better compared with the varieties developed in other geographical regions.

These issues had also surrounded the first draft of the Seed Amendment Bill circulated in 2003-04.

The latest Seed Amendment Bill 2014 is said to be “a cocktail mix of the Plant Breeder’s Rights Bill and the Seed Act 1976”.

It is claimed the government is pushing it now under pressure from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), seed producing multinational companies and lobbyists. Pakistan is a signatory to the WIPO Convention 1976 that allowed Pakistani farmers to multiply seed produced outside Pakistan.

“However this did not suit multinational seed producing companies and the WIPO amended its rules in 1991. Pakistan refused to sign it because it gave complete control to multinational companies over the country’s entire agriculture sector increasing farmers’ dependency on seed produced outside Pakistan,” said the PARC senior official.

Agriculture scientists argue that the government should safeguard welfare of local and especially small farmers by introducing, like India and China, seed breeding programmes in Pakistan.

“They (the two nations) have made it mandatory for multinational seed producing companies to grow seeds in their local environments, and also made technology transfer America, which pioneered the genetically modified seed technology, and Australia produce the genetically modified organisms under their pesticide rules and regulations only.

“All Western countries are encouraging organic foods and selling GM seeds to less developed countries. Increasing Pakistan’s dependency on imported seed would mean increasing our trade deficit. Governments from Canada to EU do not allow food items made from GM seeds,” noted Dr Shahida Wizarat, Director Research and Head of Economic Department, Institute of Business Management, Karachi, recalling the EU warnings to Pakistan over its genetically modified rice.

However, Dr Shakeel Ahmad, Director General, Federal Seed Certification and Registration Department, defended the proposed amendment bill because it “encourages competition” between private, multinational and government sectors.

“The bill has the much needed provisions to regulate imported seed,” he assured Dawn.

Published in Dawn, October 21st , 2014