Puzzling field trial of Bt corn

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By Ashfak Bokhari
ALTHOUGH PUNJAB has refused to accept Monsantos strange demand for protection of intellectual property rights of its Bt cotton seeds, it is amazing that one of its regulators, the technical advisory body of the National Bio-Safety Committee, has reportedly allowed the company to go ahead with a field trial of its Bt corn.
The two decisions are in clash with each other as a matter of policy. The refusal to protect IPRs of Monsantos GM cotton seeds is understandable for, firstly, Punjab has already dropped the idea of using them and secondly it is not one of its responsibilities.
It is the job of other agencies such as FIA to take action against pirates. But to show favour for its Bt corn at this juncture is not understandable after what had happened last year.
The company was, in fact, expecting a breakthrough by inking a formal agreement with Punjab government as it had worked hard to create a favourable environment for that goal. It had secured a Letter of Intent in 2008, and MoU in 2010 and had developed a good nexus with bureaucracy to feel optimistic.
What Monsanto is, in fact, referring to is the unauthorised cultivation in Punjab of Bt cotton whose seeds are smuggled from India and some of which may be of Monsantos Indian company. It wants the government to act against this illegal activity by taking strong measures against the farmers using its seeds. The practice of using smuggled seeds by some farmers under the belief that they would give higher output has been going on for years but Monsanto had never asked for action against them in the past.
Pakistan is among the countries which have not so far formally introduced biotech cotton or any other crop, even on small areas, and one reason may be the Indian experience it has witnessed with alarm and which ended up in mass suicides by farmers after having become debt slaves. Then, the country happens to be among top four producers of cotton in the world and its organic cotton crop is normally enough to satisfy its needs. It enables Pakistan to become the largest exporter of cotton yarn in the world and the third largest exporter of raw cotton.
Cotton contributes about 10 per cent to the GDP and 55 per cent to the foreign exchange earnings of the country. Still, the government should not ignore the need for research on exploring indigenous BT cotton varieties which can give higher crops and also resist pests.
More unacceptable, leading to refusal of a deal with the US firm, has been the latters insistence to stop farmers from using the seeds kept by them for next crop or sharing the seeds among themselves as they had been doing for years. One of its conditions was that the Punjab government would pay a fine (compensation) to it if the farmers in the province were found doing so. The company, it argues, spends millions of dollars each year in developing these seeds and deserves to be paid for any illegal use or transfer of seeds.
This, the Punjab government argues, amounts to take-over of agriculture by Monsanto in the province. Some officials say that the company also wanted a complete ban on the sale of any other variety of seeds in the province. According to a report, Pakistan uses about 40,000 tons of cotton seeds every year, 25 per cent of which comes from the 770 seed companies operating in Pakistan. The remaining three-quarters of seeds are those that farmers share with each other.
Monsanto started its businesses in Pakistan in 1998, but had been unable to penetrate the bureaucracy for long to be able to launch its cotton seeds because of high controversy about them of being not environment-friendly and also companys indifference towards farmers rights.
In fact, in case of Bt corn, if the experimental trial goes ahead, Monsanto should be forced to pay compensation to those farmers whose organic corn crop, located near Bt corn crop, is found polluted. The corn is a highly-pollinating crop whose pollen can travel up to 500 metres. It means that any non-GM crop in the radius of this distance of the experiment field is likely to be pollinated and the farmers will not be able to sell their crop.
One may recall that an attempt to get clandestine approval of its Bt corn seeds by Monsanto had aborted last year leading to resignation of a top executive. Hence, the permission for fresh field trials is not understandable. Events had taken an ugly turn after it was discovered that large-scale trials of genetically modified corn have already been conducted and that an attempt was being made to officially adopt the so-called findings of these trials, allegedly prepared by the company itself. As a result, the head of the committee who was also director general, National Agriculture Research Council (NARC) had tendered resignation.
Many countries such as Australia, the UK, India and some European countries have not allowed cultivation of the GM corn. In India, certain states even do not allow its trial on their territory. On February 20, France decided to keep a ban on GM crops even after losing the case in the court and also asked the European Commission to suspend authorisation for planting of Monsantos GM corn. France had banned in 2008 the growing of GM corn, the only GM crop approved for planting in the European Union.
Secret cables leaked by WikiLeaks have revealed that several US State Department employees are given the assignment of promoting biotechnology around the world. Between 2005 and 2006, senior adviser Madelyn E. Spirnak travelled to Guatemala, Egypt, Slovenia, Taiwan, Turkey, South Africa, Ghana, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland to promote biotechnology. Earlier, both Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice had sent annual memos to all the US embassies outlining State Department policy on biotechnology.
In December 2009, Clinton wrote, “Our biotech outreach objectives for 2010 are to increase access to, and markets for, biotech as a means to help address the underlying causes of the food crisis, and to promote agricultural technologys role in mitigating climate change and increasing biofuel production.” USAID also performs similar promotional work for biotechnology. Biosafety laws, a common theme in leaked memos, basically mean the “laws that keep Monsantos intellectual property rights on genetically engineered crops safe.”


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