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AS officials and traders rejoice in the rice crop’s success, rice production and its exports —which stand second only to cotton exports — are already in jeopardy.

Reports of genetically modified rice seed invading the market, and thus affecting production, have generated fears in the industry regarding exports.

According to the Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan’s (REAP) data, the country now produces 7.4 million tonnes of rice — a record unto itself. Production swelled by 8.7 per cent from 6.8m tonnes last year.

The Department of Plant Protection detained the consignments of around 1,800 tonnes of hybrid rice seed suspecting them to be genetically modified

As per the economic survey of 2017-18, the area cultivated under rice crop increased by 6.4pc from 6.72m acres in 2016-17 to 7.14m acres this year. Therefore, exports registered a 29pc increase in the first three quarters (July-March) of the current fiscal as compared to the corresponding period last year.

The income from exports grew from $1.17 billion to $1.49bn this year. This success has a context. The Ministry of Food Security and Research took an initiative in 2015 for improving yield and trade surpluses; they involved the Chinese government and companies in rice production and started importing a better quality hybrid rice seed.

For the next two years, both sides were sending and receiving a number of delegations, with Chinese and Pakistani rice experts frequenting each others’ fields and markets. This resulted in producing better varieties of hybrid seeds, with the addition to yield outpacing the increase in area under production.

The average yield has jumped from 825 kilogramme per acre in 2010-11 to over 1,000kg/acre this year. These statistics have generated optimism and rightly so. However, this success came after a massive trade in imported seeds from China, ranging from 7,000 tonnes to 10,000 tonnes.

Pakistan, with few interventions at its ports and in the distribution network, was never expected to keep the supply chain fully clean. During random sample checking at the port early this year, some consignments from China were found to be carrying genetically modified (GM) rice seed and were detained.

The Department of Plant Protection (DPP), which checks for quality and purity, detained the consignments of around 1,800 tonnes of hybrid seed and made them undergo the testing process.

The matter was complicated further when one laboratory in Karachi tested the consignment positive for genetic modification, but another lab in Faisalabad contradicted it. Yet another official lab tested it positive. As the issue snowballed, the Chinese embassy and the Punjab government stepped in.

In a letter to the federal government in April this year, Punjab informed the food ministry that despite a policy of zero tolerance towards import and export of GM rice, consignments with such content are reported every now and then.

REAP has also been reporting rejections of export consignments due to the same reason. It has thus requested to strengthen the inspection process by involving nationally reputed laboratories.

In a similar letter, the Chinese government, which had duly cleared the consignments, also wrote to the food ministry claiming that Pakistan imports 7,000 to 10,000 tonnes of hybrid rice seed from China every year.

China neither allows production nor export of GM rice seed to any of its companies. Citing discrepancies in the testing results, it asked the ministry to intervene and test the consignment in the presence of experts from both sides to resolve the matter.

Beyond this diplomatic row, the industry here needs to be more cautious as its stakes in the crop are even higher now given the recent success of the crop grown with the help of the Chinese.

According to the traders of the seed, with the massive expansion in the seed business, some trading houses, which have neither research nor testing facilities, got involved in the business on either side.

GM rice seed will keep infiltrating the Pakistani market until and unless both sides set up a registration process and a monitoring system to keep the supply chain clean. The food ministry on its part needs to understand that its policy initiative, for which it is claiming credit, could become a national liability if it does not move quickly to plug these holes.

If consignments keep getting stopped or rejected for such reasons, the entire initiative will fizzle out and additional production will remain stuck in the country, leading to economic chaos, as has happened with wheat.

The reports of GM content, which are sporadic so far, should not be allowed to gain any momentum otherwise Pakistan would quickly lose foreign markets, which have no tolerance for such commodities.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 25th, 2018