GMO tug of war

June 08, 2019

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WHY should an official of the US Embassy, representing the Department of Agriculture, be going overboard to ‘collaborate’ with Pakistan on projects involving genetically modified maize? This unwanted advice seems to be seedy business at a time when there is a tug of war taking place between various lobbies in the agricultural sector.

Even more regrettable is that in the past such dubious overtures by biotech giants have been extended to too many people whose integrity is in doubt. Quite a few were elected representatives of the people who went ahead to change the Seed Act in 2016. The legality of this move has now been challenged by the farmers in a court of law. The amendments in the act paved the ground for introducing GM seeds in the country.

Moves are now afoot to win over opinion in the quarters that matter. This time the target is maize, one of our best food crops next to wheat and rice. The battleground is in the highest quarters. Pakistan produced 6.1 million tonnes of maize in 2018 showing a yield per hectare of 5MT (about 2MT per acre). This was 2MT in 2003. The Philippines which switched over to GM corn in 2003 could increase its yield per hectare from 2MT to only 3MT in the same period.

This is not the time to champion the cause of GMOs in Pakistan.

Do we still have to change over? Mercifully, our own experience and native wisdom has warned many opinion makers of the hazards of genetically modified organisms in a country like Pakistan. Notwithstanding our good record and the opinion of our experts resisting GM maize, the controversy on the issue is being raked up repeatedly.

This is not the time to champion the cause of GMOs in Pakistan when the country is in the grip of an economic crisis. The farmers’ community has pointed out from time to time how our cotton production has been falling since BT cotton was introduced in Pakistan in 2010. This has also affected our textile industry adversely.

The biotech companies, however, continue to play their insidious game of luring farmers and policymakers to turn to GM seeds by holding out half-truths and even presenting downright lies. For instance, they claim that GM enhances food production at a lower cost as fewer pesticides are needed and no tilling is required because BT prevents weeds. They also claim that GMOs are heat- and drought-resistant.

But farmers have a different story to tell. They say that GMOs have created super weeds that resist glyphosate. The plants that create their own BT insecticides have also given rise to bugs (pink bollworm) that are BT resistant. And all along humans are unwittingly consuming this chemical.

Another danger to Pakistan’s agriculture and food security is the likelihood of cross-pollination which is high in the case of GM corn and GM canola. This phenomenon is not preventable as has been experienced in the case of BT cotton. Worse still, no action has been taken to ban BT cotton by the EPA which is required to act under the Cartagena Protocol in such cases when contamination takes place.

Above all, we have not looked into the health risks of GM corn which is an edible crop. WHO has declared Roundup, the pesticide used with GMOs, to be likely to cause cancer. Obviously, the chicken feed from GM crops will not be safe for our poultry either. How will humans who consume it be safe?

What is the official opinion? A meeting of ‘official stakeholders’ called by the secretary of the Ministry for National Food Security and Research in February left no one in doubt about where the expert opinion stood. The minutes categorically recorded eight salient arguments against GMOs.

1) Biotechnology should be adopted but it is more than just GMO; 2) Before any decision is taken on the commercialisation of GM maize, its socioeconomic implications must be analysed; 3) There are serious concerns in the export of GMO from Pakistan which will hit its trade; 4) GMOs will lead to the monopolisation of the seed market; 5) After commercialisation of GMO, there will be no legal framework to separate it from non-GMOs; 6) There is no mechanism to educate farmers about GMO; 7) Food security may be compromised; 8) Farmers’ rights will be infringed upon.

These are valid concerns. Dr Khalid Aziz, manager Rafhan Corn Products, adds an economic argument against the commercialisation of GM maize. Nearly Rs2bn worth of corn products are exported from Pakistan every year, most of it to EU which insists on certified non-GM maize and even pays a premium for it.

At the other end is the chairman (from the PML-N) of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on National Food Security and Research and his supporters. This controversy is having an undesirably destabilising impact. The sensible move in the light of the stand taken by the stakeholders’ meetings would be for the prime minister to announce unequivocally, “NO to GMO Maize”.

www.zubeidamustafa.com

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2019