‘Seedy’ business

Published November 13, 2015

COTTON growers in southern Punjab are facing a serious crisis. Their crop production has shrunk drastically. The reasons stated, among others, are poor quality seeds and severe pest attack.

These factors can be addressed, provided the will exists. Poor seeds and pest attacks that are interconnected have a causal link with the rapid spread of genetically modified organisms (GMO) that have begun to shake public confidence the world over.

The tide is now turning as demonstrations have been held against GMOs, which shot to fame when they were promoted as the miracle seed to eliminate hunger. But the fact is that hybrid plants in which genomes from different species are mixed are too new and untested a technology to win universal acceptance.

Hybrid plants are too untested a technology to win universal acceptance.

Awareness is growing and people have begun to question the wisdom of genetic modification of seeds to increase agricultural production and pre-empt pest attacks. WHO has also cast doubts on health-related issues linked to GMOs. Many countries have banned their cultivation.

Pakistan has a different story. The GM seed producing biotech multinationals in the country appear to be doing well. Pakistan’s agriculture faces an existential threat as the GMO seeds being used widely in cotton plantation have not been tested rigorously in local conditions. Their impact is not fully understood.

This makes our economy very vulnerable as nearly 70pc of the population depends on agriculture for its livelihood with cotton occupying a pivotal place. It constitutes 10pc of the GDP, while cotton exports account for 55pc of the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

Pakistan’s GMO story is a relatively new one. Yet we failed to learn from the terrible experience of others who jumped onto the GMO bandwagon before us. Bt cotton seeds were smuggled into Pakistan in 2005. In the absence of a legal regulatory framework for the transfer and use of genetically modified seeds in the country, this was risky business especially in light of the earlier news of peasant suicides in India.

The authorities proceeded to approve Bt cotton for planting in Pakistan in 2010. By the government’s own admission — the illegality of the process notwithstanding — by then the GM brand of cotton was covering 60pc of Pakistan’s cotton acreage. Today, that figure is said to be 85 pc. Matters have now taken a serious turn. Ignoring the advice of experts for strong regulatory oversight, the government took up in 2014 24 pending applications for commercial licences for Bt cotton and genetically modified corn.

It appears to be going all out to accommodate the seed manufacturers that included biotech multinationals. A court battle has, meanwhile, ensued that has acted somewhat as a dampener, and no new licences have been issued recently. But Bt has penetrated the seed sector in a big way.

Ground-breaking research on GMOs by Tahir Hasnain, an agriculture expert, should explode many myths. He writes that cultivating Bt cotton is more expensive. The price of seeds is higher and the greater need for fertiliser, water and pesticides pushes up the costs. Ironically, new pests have emerged as the genetically modified varieties of cotton that have a low expression of the required toxins make the bugs resistant to them. GM was supposed to minimise pest attacks. Now the sale of pesticide manufactured by the same biotech companies has shot up.

A new phenomenon which could have grim repercussions is the shift to cash crops away from food that is beginning to take place on account of different harvesting seasons of GMOs leaving no time for wheat sowing. In 2014-15, wheat production declined in Pakistan. Mean­while, cotton has failed to reach the production level it had achieved in 2004, before the advent of the age of Bt.

The government is protecting the interests of the biotech multinationals whose financially underpinned ‘lobbying’ powers match the capacity of our policymakers to accept ‘favours’. The parliamentarians have been no different and have adopted a bill amending the Seeds Act, 1976, to “improve the existing law so as to enable it to meet the requirements of the modern seed industry”.

Pressure for change comes from the US which wants Pakistan to meet its ‘obligations’ under WTO regulations and create a larger market for the private seed producers. Previously, seed manufacturing was primarily in the public sector, The amended law now opens the door to giant biotech companies to enter the Pakistan seed market.

Since much of the criticism focuses on the absence of research and tests on the Bt cotton seeds in local conditions, in 2011 the US paid $5.5 million to Pakistani agricultural institutes to do research on Bt cotton. Unsurprisingly, this has produced no results.

Bt cotton is a good example of how corporate domination is secured by circumventing weak regulatory mechanisms and manipulating the corrupt ruling classes who are co-opted as lobbyists to pave the way for corporate goals.


Published in Dawn, November 13th, 2015

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