RECENTLY, we had bad and good news in quick succession. It was first announced that Punjab’s interim government had issued a notification stating that it had signed an agreement with the army to hand over to the latter more than 45,000 acres of land in the province’s Bhakkar, Sahiwal and Khushab districts for corporate farming. A few weeks later, to my great relief, I learnt that Rafay Alam, the lawyer fighting cases to save Pakistan’s agriculture from the treachery of our rulers, petitioned the Lahore High Court to have the notification withdrawn. The court stopped the transfer.
Not many details are known about the accord that now stands suspended. Those who have followed our past governments’ experiments in agriculture and biotechnology shudder at the ruin they have brought in their wake. One gathers from media reports that the project was related to research and also for corporate farming.
In the present circumstances, one can ask the agriculture department why this so-called barren land has not been put to good use. If the deal goes through how will the corporate farmers cultivate it and make massive profits as claimed? Why is it devoid of livestock as was disclosed by the livestock department? Where have the forests disappeared? This can be asked of the forest department which was also named in the suspended agreement. If the timber mafia has played a role in the deforestation process, was there official connivance in this anti-state activity?
My major concern at this waste of a valuable state resource is related to land distribution. Land reforms have been blocked in the country by vested interests. But that should not prevent the government from giving small landless farmers its own land to cultivate on easy terms to enable them to grow food and earn a living.
Our experiment with biotechnology hasn’t been a happy one.
Here, we must remember that Pakistan’s experience of biotechnology research and its quest for a green revolution has not been a very happy one. Whenever there is talk of agriculture being made profitable, biotechnology has invariably figured. Our experiments with hybrid and genetically modified plants and seeds have proved to be disastrous. Not only has productivity fallen over the years, soil and seeds have also been eroded. As a result, agriculture now constitutes barely 22.6 per cent of the national economy whereas it was 43.1pc in the 1960s. From 2011 to 2021, agriculture’s share in GDP has fallen from 25.1pc to 22.6pc.
A lesson we have learnt from our own experience is that we should not involve foreign companies or governments in those sectors of our economy which we have successfully managed with indigenous expertise. Certainly, innovations should be adopted, but only after they have been thoroughly tested under local soil and weather conditions by our own agriculturalists who have knowledge of tilling and farming. If any land has to be leased for corporate farming, it should be on stringent conditions with regard to the use or acquisition of biotechnology that covers seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. Research should be carefully monitored and not done surreptitiously or in haste. Every project must benefit local labour.
Many of us still remember how enamoured our agricultural bosses were of GMOs, BT cotton and Roundup pesticide once upon a time. Biotechnology was worshipped as the miracle agent that would banish hunger from the world. What did we get? A bagful of failure that left behind a trail of destruction in our hitherto thriving agricultural sector, irretrievably damaging soil on account of the excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Our seeds lost their robustness and human health was afflicted by unknown ailments.
It all started in 2005 when some GMO was smuggled into Pakistan. In 2009, we entered into an agreement with China to grow BT cotton. Failure didn’t teach us a lesson and we went ahead and officially introduced GMO in 2010. We are still in search of the miracle. In 2020, the then cabinet celebrated its success in having agriculture and biotechnology included in CPEC schemes. The motives behind these moves are not clear at all.
As I struggled to figure out what the government wants, I received a forwarded email from Rob Herring of Earth Conscious Life, warning readers about how inorganic food has gained acceptance as regular food. It fills us with toxicity and causes strange illnesses not fully understood by the medical profession. “The body is resilient to a degree but that should not be an excuse for continuing down the path of consuming toxic food,” he wrote. He reminded readers to think what it did to the immune system. I pondered for long over whether there was a connection between corporate farming, hefty profits, the use of toxic pesticides and enhanced productivity substances. Rob had answered my question.
Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2023