Developing new seed varieties

Published November 28, 2022
Shahzad Ali Malik, CEO GARS
Shahzad Ali Malik, CEO GARS

Growing from a small auto spare parts shop at the old Sarai Sultan bus terminal in Lahore, one of Pakistan’s top national brands, Guard, has become a household name due to its oil filters, engine and brake lubricants and, above all, packed rice.

However, few know that the biggest contribution made by the Guard Group of Companies to the country’s economy and exports came from its agriculture research wing, Guard Agricultural Research and Services (GARS). GARS introduced hybrid rice seed technology to farmers in Sindh in the early 2000s after years of research and field trials in collaboration with China’s Yuan Longping High Tech Agriculture Company.

The hybrid technology has since helped more than double the per acre rice yield to 4,800-5,200 kilos, boosted farmers’ income, and alleviated poverty in rice-growing areas of upper and lower Sindh. After its success in Sindh, it is now sown in parts of south Punjab.

The huge increase in output means an additional surplus for exports, growing Pakistan’s outbound rice shipments to $2.5 billion in the last fiscal year from $700 million or so when the first hybrid seed variety was introduced in 2002. The group, the first Pakistani company to have launched packed and branded rice in the country, sells rice to nearly 40 countries with its brand name and has already captured a big slice of the market in regions where South Asian expats live.

Hybrid technology has helped more than double the per acre rice yield to 4,800-5,200 kilos, boosting farmers’ income, and alleviating poverty in rice-growing areas of Sindh

“We are the pioneer of hybrid rice technology in Pakistan that has brought prosperity to rice growing areas. Today we have 12-13 approved hybrid rice seed varieties. Before hybrid technology was launched, our rice growers would sow Irri, which had degenerated over time and would not yield more than 2,000 kilos per acre. We are proud to have served our growers and country in a meaningful way,” GARS CEO Shahzad Ali Malik told Dawn in an interview last week. “We have also started exporting hybrid seed to the Philippines, where Irri was developed. It’s like selling ice to Iceland,” he chuckled.

In a candid conversation, he says his group ventured into agriculture research and development in 1989 because they sensed a good business opportunity in the research-based food business. “We hired a top scientist to conduct research. The breakthrough came when Yuan Longping, China’s top technology provider and inventor of hybrid rice, approached us and offered collaboration in hybrid technology. We didn’t know anything about that, but we realised that it could be a big opportunity for us as well as the country. We were right.”

The success has led Mr Malik to expand the research into developing heat, drought and salinity tolerant rice varieties and build high-yield hybrid wheat and cotton seed varieties in collaboration with the Beijing Academy of Agriculture Sciences.

“It’s a shame that despite being an agricultural country, we must import wheat and cotton to meet our food and industrial requirements. We have five field crops — cotton, wheat, maise, rice and sugarcane — but only rice and maise are performing well because of hybrid technology, which significantly cuts production costs and boosts output,” says Mr Malik. , who was awarded Sitara-i-Imtiaz by the previous PPP government, says, adding the Research and field trials on hybrid cotton have been ongoing for the last seven years and wheat for five years in six company research centres in Sindh and three in south Punjab, he says. “We hope to get regulatory approvals and commercialise hybrid cotton and wheat crops in the next two years. At present, we are focused on high-yield hybrid varieties of these crops. Other varieties will follow later,” says Mr Malik, who was awarded Sitara-i-Imtiaz by the PPP government.

Hybrid rice seeds are almost seven times more expensive than regular seeds and the growers have to purchase them from seed companies every year because these cannot be stored for the next harvest. But the growers require only a small quantity of hybrid seed compared to regular seeds.

“With double the harvest and incomes, hybrid technology is more viable than conventional seed technology and, therefore, makes economic sense for farmers,” Mr Malik argues. He points out that public-sector agriculture research institutes should work to develop hybrid basmati rice to protect our heritage.

“Hybrid rice is so popular among the growers that basmati growers are also switching to this variety. Unless we offer basmati growers new high-yielding basmati varieties, I fear they will stop growing it due to higher production costs and lower yields,” he warns. Guard is also working on hybrid basmati varieties to protect the nation’s cultural heritage.

Mr Malik says the investment in agriculture research can be risky, but the returns are very good. “Development of a seed variety is not capital intensive, but it is a painstakingly slow process, taking six to seven years and involving research and field trials. Even after this long time, you cannot be sure of success. That’s why no one ventures into agriculture research; our businessmen want quick returns on their investments. Investing in real estate is easier and much more profitable for them. Many companies are importing hybrid rice seeds to sell in the country; only our firm has invested in the development of varieties suitable to the weather of different regions in Pakistan.”

He is very critical of the regulatory regime for seed variety approval. “Seed variety approval is a very cumbersome process in Pakistan. All the approving authorities are in the public sector and comprise people working for the government or government-run research institutes. They don’t want the private sector to take the lead in agriculture research and keep setting up roadblocks. In my view, the seed councils should have representation from research-oriented private companies to make the variety approval process easy.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, November 28th, 2022

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