Pakistan has a national agricultural research system (NARS) consisting of federal as well as provincial research institutions. Overall, there are 74 research establishments at the federal level and 106 research institutions/agricultural research stations at provincial level. Each province has its own commodity based/multidisciplinary agricultural research institutes/research stations and substations that cover crops, livestock, forestry, and in some cases, fisheries. There are 63 research establishments in Punjab, 22 in Sindh, 15 in NWFP and 10 in Balochistan. The provinces have also established mono-crop institutes concentrating on specific crops.
All the provinces have agricultural universities where basic and applied research is a vital part of their academic activities. In Pakistan agricultural research is poorly staffed and under-funded in all senses. It is also identified that the research system in Pakistan offers limited career growth opportunities and little financial incentives even to the highly qualified scientists. The high level research leadership often lacks skills of human resource management. Most of the institutions lack access to quality literature and modern lab equipments to undertake quality research. The science gap is widening due to fast moving scientific development internationally. Pakistan must introduce a more knowledge intensive agricultural research system that must focus on technological innovations at the system level and has access to modern biological sciences.
It is widely accepted that the conventional breeding, extensively used during the Green Revolution era, no longer offer any significant breakthroughs in the yield potentials and in providing solution to the complex problems of pests, diseases, and drought stress. The recent achievements in the field of biotechnology offer the potential to increase the crop and livestock productivity; improve nutritional quality, broaden crop tolerance against biotic and abiotic stresses and enhance crop resistance against pests and diseases. The tools of modern biotechnology are precise and make development of new strains of improved crop and livestock more rapidly. It is envisaged that the next breakthrough in agricultural productivity would be due to recent developments in plant molecular biology, genetic engineering and rapid advancement in genomics.
Traditional biotech activities particularly related to plant tissue culture have been carried out in few academic and research institutions of Pakistan since 1970s. An exclusive national center of Molecular Biology (CEMB) was established in 1983-84 at Lahore. The National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) started work at Faisalabad in 1994. During the past few years, there is growing interest in establishing Biotech centers in major cities. Despite all these developments, there is no coherent national policy regarding biotechnology in general and agriculture biotechnology in particular.
Agricultural Biotechnology RandD is suggested to focus on areas of traditional biotechnology as well as modern biotechnology like genetic engineering and plant genomics. The techniques of modern biotechnology can be applied to diagnosis of pests, diseases, contaminants, vaccine development and quality traits; micro-propagation to provide disease free plantlets of vegetatively propagated species; generating genetic markers, maps, and genomic information in marker assisted selection and breeding; and in developing transgenic plants with higher yields, disease and pest resistance, tolerance of environmental stresses, and improved nutrition in crops.
Biological pest control is another promising area for research in agricultural biotechnology. The high use of chemical pesticides to control pests and diseases has not resulted only in high production costs but also has serious implications for environment and national health. The chemical pesticides are highly inefficient as most of the sprayed chemical are washed away from plant surface and end up in the soils. The chemical residues have already started appearing in our food chain and feeds of livestock. In these circumstances, it is particularly important that efforts are made to substitute chemical pesticides with bio-pesticides, which are environmentally friendly and are more target specific and do not leave harmful residues.
In Pakistan, soils are generally deficient in organic matter and essential plant nutrients, due to high temperature and intense microbial activity. The application of organic fertilizer is limited and that of chemical fertilizers is increasing. This coupled with unbalanced use and faulty management practices the fertilizer efficiency is quite low. It results not only in rising production costs but also in degradation of land and water resources. The development and use of bio-fertilizers in combination with organic and chemical fertilizer may improve crop yields, reduce costs, and conserve land and water resources. In Pakistan, the government directly or indirectly supports much of the production of biofertilizers. NIAB/NIBGE, Faisalabad, NARC, Islamabad, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad and several provincial institutes are involved in research on bio-fertilizers.
The demand for bio-fertilizers is nominal due to poor and uneven quality, short shelf life, absence of distribution system, and small contribution to crop yield. The research efforts to increase the shelf life and effectiveness of bio-fertilizers through genetic manipulation of strains are crucial for enhancing acceptance and use of bio-fertilizers in the country. The modern biotechnology has widened the range of useful traits that can be applied to develop new varieties by the virtue of technical ability to transfer genes conveying desirable traits from any organism into any other. Moreover, it reduces time in which desired changes in plant characteristics can be made to about half of that required through traditional methods.