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Unprepared for GM crops enough to evoke disaster in Pakistan

By Dr. Anwar Mirza

THESE DAYS, a question being raised by some people in Pakistan is, why shouldn’t the government in Pakistan allow GM or Bt Corn (Maize) in the country since no negative environmental impact is involved. This is highly fallacious thinking and could render an environmental and agricultural disaster for Pakistan.
Contamination by GM/Bt corn of non-GMO crops is something that Pakistan’s decision-makers need to worry about. The Punjab government has recently rejected the Bt Cotton Business Model proposed by Monsanto since its financial implications were not in the interest of the country. Similarly, regulators currently taking a look at GM / Bt corn/maize also need to think as to whether this is in the interest of Pakistan or not.
Points which are so far not being answered by the concerned quarters in Pakistan are that how to stop crop contamination of non-GMO corn/maize. All scientific evidence points out that a minimum distance of 200-300 meters must be maintained between corn/maize fields to avoid GM or Bt corn fields contaminating non-GMO corn/maize fields.
In Pakistan, unlike USA, we have smaller farms and crops lie virtually side by side. There is no way to avoid crop contamination. In real life situation, we will not be able to isolate GM or non-GM crops.
There is 100 per cent chance of crop contamination and that can mean destroying the existing seed varieties and hybrids. Unless we have a mechanism or system to settle this GM contamination issue, we should not allow GM corn approval.
Some multinational seed companies' planted farmers and poultry groups are currently being presented at seminars and meetings who present pro-GMO views to government officials/regulators. The fact is that at this stage it’s a regulatory and science issue. Cheap and emotional pleas from farmers in the media are pressure tactics employed by the multinationals. Such illogical statements by pressure groups are of zero significance from scientific & regulatory point of view and need to be discouraged.
Insect Resistant Management Plan (IRM) is also a very important issue. So far there is no government institute at federal or provincial level to monitor and manage this issue. And the so-called 'experts' from corporate seed companies have failed to support IRM programmes in Pakistan and in fact, no laboratory exists in Pakistan for this purpose. The Pakistani regulators & decision-makers have to-date not given any importance to this critical issue. Without IRM established procedures and institutes we will be authorizing something we don't know about. Approving GM crops without a national insect resistance management plan and institute is like asking a nursing assistant to perform neuro-surgery.
Already, per acre corn/maize yields are at the highest level in Pakistan. 'Elite' hybrids are being sold in the market in Pakistan. What additional yield benefits are being proposed by the multinationals? And what is the basis of such claims as large-scale Bt Corn maize/corn trials have still not been held in Pakistan. Maize/corn crop pest data relevant to Pakistan needs to be openly presented to know about real value in our local argo-climatic conditions.
In India, so far 3-4 years GM/Bt corn trials have been planted but no approval is in sight because government, clearly wants to assess the issue. In Pakistan, some pro-GM crops lobbyists are saying that since two years trials are complete, therefore, as per Pakistani government, 'Standard Operating Procedures' (SOPs), commercialization of corn/maize should be approved. Why? Would we take poison just because it's lethal effect is established?
We need to assess this on a long-term basis as corn/maize is part of our food/feed crops chain. No urgency is required here.
Australia, UK, Germany, France, Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, India etc., which have better resources, regulatory framework and technology, still do not allow planting of GM corn/maize.
Asian corn planting and consuming giants like Indonesia & Thailand are not at all ready to commercialize GM/Bt corn. No field trials of Bt corn allowed in Thailand so far while, Indonesia allowed only greenhouse or closed trials.
Corn/maize seed prices are rising all the time. During 2008-12, the price of a corn seed bag has risen from 3,500 to 5,500 rupees in Pakistan! But no additional benefits are being given in terms of yield increase by these seeds. GM seeds mean even higher pricing but no additional yield guarantee. Recently, Monsanto which is a major player in the GM seed industry, has sued electric companies in Idaho, USA, because it says they are investing in infrastructure without showing or proving its value or worth to customers. OK, so the question is that when the same seeds with no additional benefits are being sold in Pakistan every year, why their price is hiked by 300-500 rupees before every season? Because of seed costs rising, input cost for farmers is at an all time high and getting higher.
Except Philippines, no other Asian country has allowed GM corn so far including agricultural giants like India and Australia. Why? Because it's a food/feed crop and there's a lot to be thought about before approving modified crops/organism. And the Philippines uses tropical seeds so its example is irrelevant for Pakistan and India because we use a totally different seed and it's a different climatic condition.
Pakistani officials are being pressured by the multinationals to give early approval of genetically modified Bt corn/maize. When no other country except the Philippines has done so far in Asia and there is no urgency or crises regarding this crop, why we are being pushed? The reason is that seed companies want to get through the approval process in Pakistan as they believe the regulatory system is weak and can be lobbied through. Pakistan plants very few corn seeds compared to many other countries. So from the business point of view, if Pakistan allows GM corn, it's nothing significant but from a political point of view, it's serious as the pro-GM business sector can claim it as a victory and show that another country is added to the GM planting countries list.
Instead of becoming pawns of the pro-GM lobby, decision makers in Pakistan need to assess value of technology and since this is a matter of food crops and environmental contamination by GM crops, we need to hesitate and keep our local agricultural and environmental interests in view.


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