There is a strong need to launch awareness campaigns for farmers regarding actual advantages of the GM crops and dangers (if any)
There is a roaring debate going on in some sections of the country over potential and actual benefits of the genetically modified (GM) crop technology’s use amid conflicting claims of the yield gains and losses in GM cotton. The GM crop biotechnology’s use in the country is limited currently to only the cotton crop. According to official reports, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis ) cotton is grown on over 2.5 million hectares — some 92 percent of the total area under cotton.
Bacillus thuringiensis is generally known as a bacterium that occurs naturally in soil, which has been used as a biological pesticide for more than 50 years. In fact, Bt also occurs naturally in the char of caterpillars of different kinds of moths and butterflies, as well as on the dark surfaces of plants. During sporulation, Bt strains produce crystal protein that causes insecticidal action and is used as insecticide, more recently to genetically modified crops using Bt genes.
GM cotton was being illegally grown in the country since 2005, but its cultivation was officially allowed in 2010 for its positive outcomes. Having been deemed as a tool for boosting farm productivity to meet rising food needs, the government incorporated GM crop biotechnology in the country`s policy documents.
Development of infrastructure for the new bodies such as the National Biosafety Centre (NBC) and the Intellectual Property Rights Organisation (IPRO) resulted in the delay of approval process of Bt cotton by both the public and private sector. The vacuum was filled by unauthorised/unapproved Bt cotton seed because of the strong demand of the farming community. This resulted in coverage of large areas under cultivation of unapproved Bt cotton seed.
In fact, commercial release of any new varieties of GM crops in Pakistan, including cotton, need clearance of the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), NBC, IPRO and Ministry of Food Security and Research.
As per survey reports of the National Agricultural Research Centre (NARC), by 2008, 80 percent of the cotton-growing area in Sindh and 50 percent in Punjab were Bt cotton. The area under different Bt transgenic cotton varieties increased in 2010 to nearly 100 percent and 80 percent, respectively.
The reports show that at present some 48 different varieties of genetically modified or Bt cotton are being cultivated in Pakistan, most of them in Sindh and Punjab that together account for over 85 percent area under cotton in the country. The farmers have linked the robust performance of cotton crop in the country to the cultivation of these GM varieties of cotton because of over two-fold increase in per hectare yield and marked decline in viral and pest attack on the cotton crop.
As per Abdul Sattar Qureshi, acting head of the Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering at the University of Sindh, complaints of bollworm and other viral attacks have markedly reduced and reports of over 60 percent increase in productivity as compared to that of non-Bt cotton varieties poured in from areas under Bt cotton in different parts of the country.
Nevertheless, environmentalists have the other side of the story. They say the GM crop varieties have been developed by multinational companies in sheer disregard of environmental aspects, since they are only bent upon making profits.
GM crops cast negative impacts on the soil and other environmental regimes. Such crops will alter the existing genetic balance, add a new aspect to soil or subsoil water resources, and transfer their genetic traits to non-GM crops. For example, Bt cotton, which has a poisonous genetic trait, if cultivated near a wheat field, opens up chances that the poisonous characteristics will be transferred to the wheat crop, according to Tanveer Arif, Chief Executive of the Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment in Pakistan.
However, agriculture biotechnologists at NARC and those engaged in the crop biotechnology research at different universities term such claims of environmentalists as baseless. They argue that studies by different scientists in the country have already concluded that Bt cotton plantation is rather beneficial in reducing pests of nearby non-Bt crops and that less number of pesticide sprays and protection from bollworms has been reported by the farmers who grow Bt cotton.
Agronomists say that some elements in the government and manufacturers of chemical pesticide, insecticide and producers of conventional crop varieties are actively lobbying against biotech crops and creating unnecessary fears among gullible farmers. To tackle such confusing situations, however, there is a strong need to launch awareness campaigns for farmers regarding actual advantages of the GM crops and dangers (if any). For gaining maximum benefits from the cultivation of GM crops, it is equally essential that farmers have unimpeded access to locally certified and unadulterated biotech crop varieties after they have passed laboratory and field trials.
It has been agreed among crop biotechnologists, agronomists and environmentalists that agriculture-related biotechnology can be of great help to boost farm productivity, if enforced in view of the bio-safety guidelines already in place in the country. There is also a need of enough resources to cure the menace of spread of unapproved varieties, which is illegal and damaging cotton production due to the spread of new diseases and above all, image of the country. The legal release of Bt cotton will be highly fruitful to tackle these issues and bring the country into the list of legally adopting GM crops countries.
The writer is Deputy Director (Media and Communication) at the Ministry of National Disaster Management in Islamabad