ISLAMABAD: A Senate committee approved on Wednesday the controversial Seed Amendment Bill 2015 which the National Assembly has already passed.
But the controversy is likely to persist because the law allows the import and commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) crops in Pakistan, which many agricultural and environmental experts consider harmful for the country.
It was the controversy that made Senate chairman refer the bill to the Senate Standing Committee on National Food Security to address the concerns farmers, lawyers, civil society and seed company associations had about the legislation.
Critics allege that the government took advantage of a turbulent period when public attention was fixed on terror attacks to get the National Assembly pass the bill “unanimously”.
Chairman of the Senate committee Senator Syed Muzafar Hussain Shah also announced unanimous approval of the bill at the conclusion of three-hour long discussion on it in the committee on Wednesday.
However, one member, Senator Mohammad Mohsin Khan Leghari, did oppose passing the bill “in haste” and allowing GM crops into Pakistan without laying down the rules and procedures to regulate imported seeds.
He said the Ministry of Food Security and Research should guarantee that the imported GM seeds are free of disease and suitable for the local environment, and wondered “why are we pushing for passing the bill when nations from Asia to South America have had terrible experiences with GM crops?”
“Farmers in India are committing suicide because of poor results of growing Bt Cotton. There farmers are entangled in a web knit by multinational companies and their indigenous cotton seeds have been wiped out,” he reminded.
Senator Leghari believes that the Seed Amendment Bill 2015 is being passed in haste without analysing the consequences of opening our doors to GM crops.
An agriculture expert in Pakistan Agriculture Research Council described the legislative exercise as illegal.
“The National Assembly cannot discuss the bill since its subject is a provincial matter. After the 18th Constitution Amendment, the provinces have the authority to frame laws on the subject,” he said.
A government official, on the condition of anonymity, shared his belief with Dawn that the government misinformed the Senate Standing Committee that provincial assemblies of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab and Sindh had passed resolutions under Article 144 of the Constitution allowing the federal government to make amendments to the bill.
The Punjab government sent only its comments on the bill, according to him.
Federal Secretary Food Security and Research Seerat Asghar conceded to the Senate committee that Pakistan lacked mechanisms and trained manpower to ensure checks and balances on genetically modified cotton, but said “this bill ensures checks and balances. It lays down a strict procedure to check and regulate GM crop seeds.”
“To satisfy the committee, the government will consult its members while making rules on imports of genetically monitored crop seeds to make regulations strict,” said the official, urging the committee not to delay the bill further for it had been hanging fire since 2007.
Pakistan is signatory to Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety, which does not permit import and commercialisation of GM crops without bio-safety regulations and proper infrastructure in place.
Anti-GM lobby in the country says that 85 per cent of Pakistan’s cotton belt is already under genetically engineered Bt cotton and multinational seed and pesticides companies are pushing to introduce genetically modified corn and maize seeds.
Many agricultural and environmental experts have been arguing that GM crops threaten Pakistan’s food security.
Critics say the bill ignored the eight-year long trial period of imported GM crop varieties/hybrid in different locations to study its adaptability and assess diseases that could spread from sowing into the local environment and have hazardous impact on human health.
They also say that genetically modified cotton introduced in Pakistan has been a failure. Growers complain that use of pesticides has increased and yields gone down since the GM cotton seed arrived as pests have developed resistance to the variety sooner than expected.
These critics claim that the government is trying to introduce Bollgard II, the second generation of Bt cotton seed, after Bollgard I failed to deliver promised results over the past five years.
Published in Dawn, June 11th, 2015