FEDERAL Minister for National Food Security Sikandar Hayat Khan Bosan says his ministry has taken a number of ‘bold steps’ to facilitate the introduction of biotechnology in the country to meet certain challenges, including food security.

The government, according to him, ‘endorses the positive use’ of biotechnology for public welfare. While implementing the technology Pakistan would remain committed to the provisions of international agreements it is a signatory to, towards safer handling of genetically modified (GM) crops. The agreements are CBD and Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

A comprehensive series of dialogues among the stakeholders on related issues made it possible to develop and implement Biosafety Rules, 2005. These guidelines and rules also provide a mechanism to prevent adverse effects of GM technology on health and environment. However, there is an urgent need to set up a National Biosafety Laboratory in the country.


However, there is an urgent need to set up a National Biosafety Laboratory in the country


The minister made the statement at a workshop on biosafety technology held on August 11-12. It was organised in collaboration with the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) and Pakistan Biotechnology Information Centre (PABIC). Mr Bosan, however, admitted that the implementation of Biosafety Rules 2005 in the country is not very effective due to a lack of awareness, not only among farmers and the public, but also among national research and academic institutes.

This is for the first time that planting crops under GM technology, which has so far been a controversial issue, is being strongly advocated and implementation measures being taken. Since the public and farmers’ resistance to this technology remains unabated, a major challenge lies in convincing farmers to adopt the GM crop technology. Convincing farmers may not be an easy task for under this paradigm they cannot reuse seeds of the previous crop and will have to buy new seeds each time.

The challenges the minister mentioned were not agriculture-specific as such. These included energy crisis, food security, and rapid urbanisation in the wake of increasing population and climate change. It is argued that biotechnology can enhance food production by 5-6pc per annum, thus, creating the possibility of achieving food security for the entire population. Steps taken by the food security ministry with respect to adoption of GM technology include establishing Biotechnology Centres across the country.

A noted biotechnologist, while speaking at the workshop, blamed the devolution of power to the provinces after passage of the 18th Amendment for ‘badly affecting’ the process of commercialisation of GM crops. It has resulted in a lack of official ownership of this important field. What is needed is a strong regulatory system to strengthen biotech research and development activities in the country.

The federal minister argued that 85pc cultivation of cotton in the country was now biotech driven. It showed that the public has accepted the need for Bt cotton. And, as a corollary, a number of other crops are in the pipeline. He said what mattered more was safer use of modern biotechnology for public good, one of the main agendas of the incumbent government. However, Bt cotton was not indigenous but was supplied by a seed multinational.

The experience of commercialisation shows that crop biotechnology has far-reaching economic, social and health consequences. Progress in genes’ manipulations and their use into biotech crops, which include: insect resistance, protection from disease and drought soil salinity.In fact,what is needed is the development of indigenous GM varieties and a proper regulatory framework for their approval. This was the only way to address public concerns. “Instead of inviting multinational companies, we need to have our own varieties that suit our ecosystems”, say experts.

However, there could be adverse effects of GM crops on agriculture exports to European countriesif these were cultivated without safety measures. Europeans are very sensitive on the GM issue and have, till now, resisted its introduction in their countries. Any hasty step in this regard could result in the loss of a large export market offering GSP Plus benefits.

The adoption of GM crops is not harmful per se, but the lack of expertise in dealing with this technology could produce harmful results. India became the top cotton producer in the world, to which Bt cotton made a significant contribution. Of the 28 countries planting biotech crops in 2015, the majority, 20, were developing and eight industrial.

Published in Dawn, Business & Finance weekly, August 22nd, 2016

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