Agriculture plays an important role in the national economy of Pakistan, where most of the rapidly increasing population resides in rural areas and depends on agriculture for subsistence. Biotechnology has considerable potential for promoting the efficiency of crop improvement, food production, and poverty reduction. Use of modern biotechnology started in Pakistan since 1985. Currently, there are 29 biotech centers/institutes in the country. However, few centers have appropriate physical facilities and trained manpower to develop genetically modified (GM) crops. Most of the activities have been on rice and cotton, which are among the top 5 crops of Pakistan. Biotic (virus/bacterial/insect) and a-biotic (salt) resistant and quality (male sterility) genes have already been incorporated in some crop plants. Despite acquiring capacity to produce transgenic plants, no GM crops, either produced locally or imported, have been released in the country. Pakistan is signatory to the World Trade Organization, Convention on Biological Diversity, and Cartagena protocols. Concerted and coordinated efforts are needed among various ministries for implementation of regulation and capacity building for import-export and local handling of GM crops. Pakistan could easily benefit from the experience of Asian countries, especially China and India, where conditions are similar and the agriculture sector is almost like that of Pakistan. Thus, the exchange of information and experiences is important among these nations.
The major crops grown are wheat, rice, cotton, sugarcane, and maize. Gram and other pulses, oil seeds, and fodder crops are also grown in different parts of the country on sizeable areas. In Pakistan, the average yields of crops, despite rapid increase in the Green Revolution era, are still low compared to other countries. A large gap exists between the potential and realized yield for almost all the major crops. With a few exceptions, the average yield of most of the crops is either stagnant or has even declined during the last decade, while input costs and amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. continued to increase. The agricultural production system in the country can operate on sound scientific and stable bases only if farm technology is kept in tune with the changing environmental and socio-economic conditions through an efficient and dynamic agricultural research system (ARS). Biotechnology is one of the recently emerging sciences that developed very quickly in different fields affecting human life. It shows a huge potential in helping mankind solve problems that are difficult to deal with using traditional methods. This science has passed the period of academic study and has reached the phase of practicalapplication on a large scale. In agriculture, biotechnology has been applied in different fields, including the production of genetically modified (GM) crops. Biotechnology has considerable potential for promoting the efficiency of crop improvement, food production, and poverty reduction, especially in developing countries like Pakistan.
Agriculture Biotechnology in Pakistan
First training course on recombinant DNA technology was organized at the Nuclear Institute for Agriculture and Biology (NIAB), Faisalabad, Pakistan, one of the 3 agricultural centers of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC). This workshop recommended the establishment of an exclusive National Center of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering. Meanwhile, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) initiated efforts to establish an International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), and Pakistan applied for locating such a center in the country. Two review missions visited Pakistan for evaluation, and Pakistan was short listed. Unfortunately it was not built in Pakistan, and ICGEB was divided into 2 parts, located in New Delhi, India, and Trieste, Italy. Biotechnology research has been carried out at many of the research centers in Pakistan. There are now more than 300 scientists working in 29 research centers conducting biotechnology research on various aspects of different crops, and about US $17 million has been invested by the government in biotechnology research and development during the last 3-4 years.
In Pakistan, most of the crop improvement activities using modern biotechnology are focused on rice and cotton, which are among the top 5 crops of Pakistan. Brassica, chickpea, chilies, cucurbits, potato, sugarcane, tobacco, and tomato have recently been taken up. Among indigenously developed GM crops, cotton is at a fairly advanced stage of commercialization. Similarly, virus-resistant and salinity-tolerant GM cotton is at the field stage of evaluation. Following cotton is basmati rice, which has also been evaluated in the field for 2 years although not yet submitted for approval. Three other GM plants (sugarcane, potato, and tomato) are also in greenhouses at the field stage. Although transgenic plants of these crops have been obtained, field evaluation was hampered due to the delays in approval of biosafety guidelines. No GM crop has been approved for commercial cultivation so far in Pakistan under Pakistan Biosafety Rules (2005). National bio-safety rules by the Ministry of Environment (MOEnv) have now provided an opportunity to evaluate the GM crops for safe release into the environment and for commercial cultivation. There are now 10 cases of GM crop plants being submitted to the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) for evaluation/approval.
All regulated laboratory research is classified into
(l) minimal level of risk,
(2) low risk, or
(3) considerable risk,
(5)laboratory containment conditions
For regulated field work, comprehensive containment conditions have been prescribed separately for GM microorganisms plants and animals.
Pakistan has made considerable progress in the research and development sector of agriculture biotechnology and has developed several GM crops. However, commercial release is hampered due to delays and weak capacity of regulatory bodies related to biosafety and IPR (Plant Breeders Rights).There is an illegal spread of biotech (Bt) cotton on a large area due to strong demand of farmer community. So far, development of GM crops has remained exclusively in the public sector, but lately multinational companies (MNCs) have made the initiative to enter into the market under new conducive regulatory regimes that need to be further strengthened. Capacity building in regulating authorities aided by strict legal control is a prerequisite for safe and sustainable use of agricultural biotechnology. It is expected that the farmers of Pakistan will reap the benefits of legally released and indigenously developed biotech crops in the next 1-2 years.
By Muhammad Omer Afzal MBA Student Iqra University Islamabad. Maj. Marketing