Challenges to biotechnology in Pakistan

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biotechnology

By Sayyar Khan Kazi

WE ARE living in an age, where almost all aspects of human life have been revolutionized by the highly sophisticated and advanced technologies. In recent years, we have witnessed on print and electronic media, several scientific endeavors to target innovations and discoveries beyond the boundaries of our planet Earth.

Technologically advanced countries such as the USA, European Union, Japan and emerging powers like China and India are beating one another to have speedy access to the mysteries of other planets. In the quest of unraveling scientific mysteries, several missions from these countries have been launched to Moon, Mars and other planets in order to lead and dictate the terms upon which the human future will rely. Overall, there has been unprecedented progress towards industrialization that revolutionized every aspect of human life including medical and health care, aviation, urbanization, infrastructure and agriculture. This, of course, presents a bright picture of the evolution of human civilizations as a result of thousands years of transformation from living in an age of stone to highly civilized societies equipped with social and scientific tools to govern this planet Earth.

Like other scientific disciplines, Agriculture Science has received much importance due to the growing needs of expanding populations for more food, feed, fiber and alternative energy resources. In this connection, the advent of modern biotechnology and genetic engineering tools has enabled scientists to manipulate the genetic material of organisms in order to exploit its hidden enormous potential. In the past two decades, biotechnological tools have brought a paradigm shift in the orthodox and traditional ways and means of improving our various industries, health sciences, environment and agriculture.

It is anticipated that the development of these crop varieties will help to feed the growing populations, particularly in regions of Sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, where majority people are facing hunger, poor quality and malnourished food. Keeping in view the promising role of biotechnology for securing the future of our coming generations, increasing number of countries, public, private sectors and multinational companies have joined the race and invested billions of dollars for research and development activities. In some areas, scientists have excelled and accomplished significant targets like crop disease resistance as mentioned above and development of accurate laboratory tools for genetic dissection, diagnosis and research on human genetic diseases.

Pakistan, a developing country is facing multi-faceted challenges including energy crisis, food security, rapid urbanization and declining fresh water resources in the wake of increasing population and the more global phenomenon of climate change. Like other countries, Pakistan also took a bold step towards adoption of modern biotechnology and started to establish biotechnology centers across the country. In all key national science and technology policies, the role of biotechnology as a potential tool for the growth and socio-economic development has been well acknowledged. In national science and technology policies launched in 1997 and later in 2009, biotechnology was emphasized one of the priority areas.

Pakistan also contributed and pioneered the establishment of an International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), initially proposed to be built in Pakistan but later on jointly built in India and Italy. Despite the initial recognition and quick response, biotechnology did not take roots as an emerging source of socio-economic development in the country.

The establishment and development of bio-energy production also needs biotechnological tools at the grass root level. Similar facilities have already been established in developed and some developing countries. Ethanol production from sugarcane and maize is a routine activity and some countries such as Brazil has transformed its automobile sector from fossil fuels to bio-ethanol.

The advantage of using bio-feed stocks for bio-energy production over fossil fuels is that bio-feed stocks are renewable resources which can be grown in abundance and secondly these give maximum protection to the environment by less CO2 emission and low effect on green-house effect and climate change. In the near future, these new energy resources will completely shift our dependency on fossil fuels to ethanol, biodiesel and bio-petroleum.

There are many reasons behind the slow growth of research, development and adoption of biotechnology products and their commercialization in Pakistan. One of the main reasons is lack of awareness of international obligations that regulate research and development and trans-boundary movement of transgenic plants. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity is an international agreement that specifically address the safety of transgenic organisms or Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) in the environment in relation to international trade. Pakistan signed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 2001. However, due to the slow establishment of infrastructure and facilities for the Protocol implementation, the ratification came in March 2009. It is worth mentioning that during Gen. Musharraf regime (1999-2008), much emphasis was placed on science and technology and Higher Education Commission (HEC) was established under the able leadership of Dr. Atta-Ur-Rehman. First time in the history of Pakistan, a fairly large proportion of the countrys annual budget was allocated for science and technology with the emergence of new universities and research institutes across the country.

Biotechnology as a new baby also received a big share of the allotted funds for building biotechnology infrastructure including new buildings, purchase of equipments and trained and skilled manpower. Thousands of biotech graduates were sent abroad on scholarships to get training, expertise and overall foreign research exposure. However, this golden period did not sustained longer and came to an end with the transition of government from military rule to democracy. Under the huge pressure from the so-called inherited challenges including energy crisis, global recession and the mounting international debts, the new democratically elected government imposed big cuts on the funds allocated for higher education. In addition, poor management at the administrative level, gross mismanagement in funds allocation and appointments of incompetent and non-technical personnel resulted in haphazard research activities with no clear cut future goals. Apart from that, research duplications, lack of coordination among the ongoing research activities at various biotech centers, failure in targeting priority research areas, lack of industry link with biotech research and lack of awareness among common people towards adoption of new technologies and their products, further aggravated the future of biotechnology in Pakistan. These illogical and unhealthy manoeuvrings undoubtedly damaged the future vision of socio-economic development as perceived by the progress of biotechnology and other science and technology related areas working under the HEC. The recent worsening of the energy crisis and continued electricity shortage in the country added further fuel to the fire. In the current situation with low funding for research activities and frequent power shortage, it is almost impossible to carry on biotechnology research activities of international quality and standards at the university and institute level.

In 2001, in the University of Agriculture, Peshawar, an institute called IBGE (Institute of biotechnology and genetic engineering) was established as a step forward to introduce and promote biotechnology in the KPK. Prof. Dr. Zahoor Ahmad Swati, a well known educationist and the founder director, solely envisioned the need of such an institute at KPK and gave it a practical shape. IBGE is now a reality with a newly constructed building, labs, green-houses, research fields and most importantly a highly trained and qualified young academia, zealous to deliver and compete on international level. During this limited time period since its establishment, IBGE has produced a large number of graduates who are either working in the country or went abroad for higher studies. Apart from academic achievements, IBGE has also focused and accomplished on several aspects of the genetic improvement of some important crop plants such as disease resistant wheat and better oil producing brassica varieties. Despite these positive developments, researchers are facing various challenges to continue quality and competitive research activities.

The following points should be focused for improvement of biotech research in the country; 1) setting priority research areas to avoid research duplication and loss of resources, 2) tight monitoring and evaluation to ensure quality of research, 3) meeting international regulatory obligations, 4) proper infrastructure for biosafety of transgenic plants, 5) linking the local industry with biotech research, 6) jobs creation for biotech graduates, 7) seeking international donors and multinational companies to invest in the biotech sector, 8) protection of intellectual property rights and patenting 9) education and awareness of common people towards biotech adoption, 10) inclusion of biotech courses at the school and college level. These points, if sincerely taken into consideration may help straighten the direction of biotechnology towards a product-oriented discipline contributing to the socio-economic development of the country.

The writer is Assistant Professor in University of Agriculture, Peshawar.


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