Given the new developments that have recently come to light with regards to genetically modified seed, the Senate has much to think about as it debates the Amended Pakistan Seed Act 2014.
The Act was passed by the National Assembly last month, just four days before the new findings by the World Bank’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) stated that glyphosate — a chemical in herbicides that are widely used on genetically modified (GM) crops — is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’.
Glyphosate is used in Monsanto’s branded herbicide Roundup Ready, which can be sprayed on crops that have been genetically engineered to tolerate glyphosate.
Asif Shuja, former director general of the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency, was recently quoted as saying that the country does not have the expertise to conduct safe trials of GM crops
For the Senate, this news is of critical importance in deciding the fate of the Amended Seed Act 2014. For over two decades, farmer and consumer organisations, as well as many scientists, have been asking governments across the globe to be cautious and adopt new technology only when it has been proven safe.
But gigantic corporations like Monsanto have tended to block moves by governments to follow a more sustainable agriculture policy, especially those that were designed to guard the economic interests of small farmers as opposed to those of corporations.
However, to some extent, genetically engineered crops and seeds and other GM products have been facing mounting pressure from many sides. In January, the European Union authorised individual member-states to decide if they would cultivate GM crops or not. This is owing to the persistent position taken by countries like Germany and France, which consider genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops harmful to human health and the environment.
If such technologically advanced countries are opposing GM crops, it is important for the Pakistani Senate to carefully analyse the issues in such technologies that could harm their own people. The National Biosafety Committee is no more functional and hence there is no legal mechanism for approving new GE seeds in the country. The issue, after the 18th amendment, is now a provincial subject, but the provinces have also not taken any steps in this area.
Asif Shuja, former director general of the Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (Pak-EPA), was recently quoted as saying that the country does not have the expertise to conduct safe trials of GM crops.
Furthermore, the current Pak-EPA Director General, Dr Mohammad Khurshid, has termed GM crops ‘weapons of mass destruction’. A recent statement by the Foreign Office said GM seeds are a matter of national security and trade.
No doubt, this is in context to the Trips Agreement in the World Trade Organisation, which was forced on third world countries to guard the profit-driven interests of industrialised countries.
Many Pakistani NGOs and farmer bodies have taken a principled stand against GE seeds. Recently, many of them sent a letter to the Senate’s chairman, asking him to reject the proposed Seed Act 2014 and enact a bill in its place that protects the seed related sovereign interests of small farmers. The stand is not only based on environmental and health issues — which are the basic concern of European people and Pakistani government officials — but also in the collective right of farmers over their use of seed.
Given the cultural heritage of our country and our farmers, why is the government promoting the interest of profit-driven seed corporations. New technologies are only welcome if they are in the interest of the people and farmers, and if they increase self-reliance, national and people’s sovereignty, and sustainable development.
It is hoped that the Senate will keep these aspirations as their guiding principles when its members sit down to discuss the potential benefit or harm of the draft Amended Seed Act 2014, whose function as a legal tool is to bring prosperity to the country’s most productive force: the small and landless farmers.
The writer is an activist working with landless farmers. She holds a doctorate degree in Social Pharmacy from the University of Minnesota, US.
Published in Dawn, Economic & Business, April 13th, 2015