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Challenges to Biotechnology in Pakistan — II




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    By Sayyar Khan Kazi
    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. 
    Likewise, in Japan, biotechnology research is in advanced stages on the industrial production of bio-petroleum from microorganisms such as green algae. 
    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 country’s 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 hip-hazard 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. During the first decade of 2000, which represents the initial phase of biotech establishment in the country, a major portion of the allotted funds for biotech institutes was spent on purchase of expensive and state of the art research equipments. However, the present situation is that most of these equipments are not functional due to either lack of trained and skilled manpower or shortage of funds to fulfill their energy and other consumption requirements. That is the main reason, our biotech institutes are mainly focusing on theory rather than quality and product-oriented practical research of international standards.
    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. Frequent electricity breakout nowadays is a major obstacle that restricts a continuous running of equipments for research activities and sometimes even small experiments can take longer times extended to weeks and months, compromising the quality of research. As an alternative energy source, electric generators are available but again the problem arises due to availability of either no or low funds to meet their fuel requirements. These and related issues must be sort out before forecasting any role of biotechnology in the socio-economic development of the country on one hand and competition with rest of the world based purely on scientific achievements on the other. Now it is high time for the concerned authorities at the provincial and federal levels, dealing with promotion of science and technology to realize seriousness of the situation and give due attention to the mounting challenges to science and technology in general and biotechnology in particular. Sufficient funds should be provided to biotech institutes so that they can continue and focus on practical research activities without any interruption either due to electricity load shedding or lack of necessary consumables. On the parallels, the ongoing research activities at various biotech institutes in the country should be streamlined under a centralized regulating body free of red-tapism and political shuffling that could efficiently govern their tight regulation, evaluation and coordination. 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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