Agriculture and food quality factors in Pakistan

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By Dr. Maria Shweba

IF YOU look at the food items at a store, you will find such things written; Low fat – Gluten free – All natural – Organic – Cage-free. Contains peanuts. Such words or assurances on food products give us a reason to purchase. While too much of labels can be confusing, they also alert us to what may or may not be in our food. And we have every right to know.
So when were standing in a grocery store ready to buy, why dont we know which foods contain genetically engineered ingredients? Good question. All it takes is a label. And thats where this gets interesting. Why make an exception for genetically modified foods?
Some consumers might find it alarming that the majority of corn and soybeans imported and present in packaged food have been genetically modified – and not for increased nutritional benefits. Rather, these genetically modified organisms (GMO) crops have been engineered to withstand pesticides so that broad spraying efforts will kill everything but the modified target crop. In addition to the genetically engineered food, we are eating high doses of weed killer. Fifty countries already label genetically engineered foods including the European Union, which has championed consumers right to choose for more than a decade. So in Pakistan why shouldnt we?
Genetically modified seed companies (like Pioneer, Monsanto) defend the safety of genetically engineered food, citing their companies scientific studies! What else could we expect from such a research? Scare tactics by the Biotech seed sector continuously warn consumers that food labeling costs will hurt them the most which is factually untrue.
Knowing whats in our food is important, its increasingly alarming to know that food contains genetically modifies organisms and we do not know! By the bullying of the opposition. Maybe the flashback is less about a label and more about corporate secrecy: Why seed and processed food companies are so reluctant about telling us whats in our food? Biotech labeling, which has been adopted in more than 50 countries by now.
The right to know about food labeling is as fundamental as the right to life because subsequently it is about health. Chemical and agricultural biotech companies are desperate to keep the public in the dark about what is really in their food. “Genetically modified foods are safe because we say so and, therefore, dont question us,” seems to be the hue and cry from the Biotech sector.
Like genetically modified (GM) foods, pesticides are also a very harmful element when it comes to human health. An apple a day might have kept the doctor away prior to the industrialization of food growing and preparation. Unless its a pesticide-free apple, not only todays apple is not sufficient to keep the doctor away, it is more likely to keep the doctor on call. According to research compiled by the United States Drug Administration (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service, Pesticide Data Program, todays apple contains residue of many toxic chemicals used during the growing process.
In only one category of chemicals, known as organophosphate insecticides, US federal government agency found residue of many different neurotoxins (chemicals proven to harm the brain and/or nervous system in humans). They include azinophos, methyl chloripyrofos, diazinon, dimethoate, ethion, omethioate, parathion, parathion methyl, phosalone, and phosmet. Does that make an apple appetizing?
It is said that in minute amounts maybe pesticides are okay. Think again. Theres a newer understanding of toxicology referred to as “the dose doesnt make the poison.” In other words, some toxins are more harmful in smaller doses, particularly when it comes to endocrine disruptors (read hormone). Scary but true. And, if that wasnt the case, the average apple is still sprayed with pesticides seventeen times before it is harvested. And, its really no different than most fruits and vegetables.
A study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified more than 55 pesticides that can leave cancer-causing residues in food. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, the use of pesticides has risen more than tenfold since the 1940s.
There are many people who still believe that pesticides are safe – mostly people who have a vested interest in maintaining the pesticide usage status quo. But, consider their origins. After wartime use of nerve gases, corporations needed a market to sell chemicals that really were best suited for killing…and so they thought up the idea of using them to kill insects on our food supply. But, increasing amounts of research is showing that this not-so-genius idea is showing that while pesticides kill pests quickly, they may also harm or kill us slowly. In case you missed it, I can think of 55 reasons off the top of my head to avoid pesticides as much as possible (55 cancer-causing residues on food!)
Pesticides are not easily washed off produce. The same is true once they enter your body. Fat-soluble pesticides are attracted to the fat stores in your body. Research shows that even though the pesticide DDT was banned in Canada and the United States over three decades ago, it is found in 100% of human fat samples tested by the United States, EPA.
So, what can you do? Stop spraying your house, body, garden, or grass with chemical insect repellants or insecticides. Eat organic food as much as possible. If thats difficult for you, get to know the local food growers in your area and find out which ones may not be certified organic but still arent using pesticides (theyre often cheaper). Grow your own food – even planters on a balcony or a tower garden work well. And, dont forget sprouts. Grow your own sprouts. Theyre nutritious and a delicious addition to meals and you can control what theyre exposed to and what finds its way into your body.
The consumers, especially in Pakistans urban areas need to start questioning and assessing what they eat and drink. Commercial Biotech and chemical sector wants to mislead you by saying that they use research and development (R and D) and technology is safe. Fact is that there are too many questions and issues which need to be answered and the business sector has too demanded to look into and answer the questions. Just adopting latest agri-technology and pesticides is not just the way to increase quantity of crops, it is also about decreasing the quality of what you get/eat.
Like pesticides, the Bt toxin contained in genetically modifies crops acts like pesticide when crops are growing. The Biotech sector will present hundreds of studies to justify that the toxin isnt harmful to humans but remember that only 40 years ago, the tobacco industry also used to say similar things! Genetically modified crops are grown not to help the consumer, these are grown to help farmers to produce more at the expense of quality i.e., your health! And GM crop proponents lie when they say increasing yield will feed the growing population …. the high prices of GM seeds and herbicides which rise every season make them out of reach for most buyers in the developing world. So start thinking and not just listening to the propaganda around you.


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