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ISLAMABAD: The federal government is opening doors for introducing various varieties of cotton seeds produced by foreign firms despite a ban on their import.

The Plant Quarantine Act 1976 prohibits the import of any kind of cotton seed, both genetically modified (GMO) and non-genetically modified.

The Act also prohibits the import of cotton from America and states. “American cotton shall not be imported into Pakistan by any means except with a special permission. No vessel carrying American cotton shall enter the territorial water of Pakistan.”

An agriculture scientist working with the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) said: “The American Sundi (army worm) and the red bug to mention a few infamous pests came from America. A strict ban was imperative because cotton is Pakistan’s strategic crop and used to be pest and disease free.”

Plant Quarantine Act 1976 prohibits the import of any kind of cotton seeds

However, documents available with Dawn showed how the Ministry of National Food Security and Research formed a joint action group on cotton seed in July, 2014, headed by the governor of Punjab, to “explore opportunities for the import of cotton hybrid and Bt (or genetically modified), seeds.”

The group, which has representation from all provinces, federal ministries of climate change, textile and national food and security, has also been mandated to get the “acquisition of latest cotton seed technologies such as Bollgard II and Roundup Ready Flux (RRF) etc.”

According to officials in the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency and the PARC, the move followed claims by foreign seed and pesticide producing companies that adopting new cotton varieties would double Pakistan’s cotton produce from an average 12 to 13 million bales a year to 26 million bales per year.

Agriculture experts explained how Pakistan’s cotton production had only declined since Bt (genetically modified) cotton seed was introduced unofficially in 2006. The government officially approved its commercialisation in 2010. Since 2006, cotton produce averaged between 12 million and 13 million bales a year. The year 2004 was the time when Pakistan had a record production of 14.6 million bales.

“It is scientifically proven that Bt is ineffective against cotton viruses,” said a source in PARC.

This also explains why agriculture scientists, farmers and local seed producers are not in favour of the government’s efforts to introduce Bollgard II and Roundup Ready Flux (RRF) in Pakistan. Bollgard II or double gene cotton seeds have twice the amounts of toxins to kill pests compared to the single gene cotton seed (MON531) being used by the local cotton growers.

“We need to learn from world experiences if these two varieties are suitable in Pakistan’s environment. We need to also make sure that they do not pose health and environmental risks in the long run,” said Chairman Seed Association of Pakistan, Sarfraz Ahmad Khalid.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Pakistan’s cotton yield per acre was still significantly higher than India, which introduced Bollgard II (double gene cotton seed) in 2006.

“This is why countries such as India and China have not allowed RRF varieties in their countries. Specific herbicides will be needed which will only be available from manufacturers of RRF seed,” said Mr Khalid, adding how these herbicides contained a deadly mix of Glyphosate and 2, 4-D (or agent orange), which have health hazards especially for farmers who spray them.

Director General Pak-Epa Dr Mohammad Khurshid did not believe that the government would allow the import of new technologies of cotton seed in violation of the laws. He argued that an amendment to the Seed Act was needed to facilitate GMO seed technologies by Biotech seed producing multinational companies.

Dr Khurshid said he was in the process of reviving the National Bio-safety Centre (NBC), which monitored and conducted risk assessment of genetically modified seed quality in Pakistan.

“Unfortunately, NBC ceased to exist after devolution in 2009. Pakistan does not have a mechanism to regulate genetically modified or non-genetically local or imported seeds. If the government does allow imports of GM or non-GM cotton seeds, it will be held accountable when the NBC does become functional.”

He added: “However, we have informed Minister for National Food, Security and Research Malik Sikander Hyat Khan Bosan that whatever steps the government takes regarding the import of GMO and non-GMO items it should not be outside the laws,” he added.

Chairman PARC Dr Iftikhar Ahmad, who is in favour of introducing genetically modified crops in Pakistan to increase yield, explained how the new technologies would do more good than harm.

He conceded that there was a ban on the import of any kind of cotton seed. “Roughly 2lb of cotton seed is allowed to be imported for research purposes only to access health and environmental hazards. A strict procedure will be followed before GMO cotton seed is allowed into Pakistan.”

However, he said the main purpose of the joint action group was to revamp the cotton growing sector.

Cotton Commissioner, Ministry of Textile Industry, Dr Khalid Abdullah, said Bollgard II and RRF were technologies and not cotton seeds.

“Farmers will have more pest resistant varieties produced from these technologies. RRF will be beneficial for farmers because it will increase cotton yield by 30 percent. And Bollgard II will protect cotton against Army worm,” he added.

Aamir M. Mirza, the country head of Monsanto, a multinational seed and pesticide producing company, explained how Glysophate was one of the safest chemicals used by farmers worldwide.

“We educate farmers on its proper use,” he said, explaining how Bollgard II increased plant efficacy against pests that destroyed plants.

Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2014