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[ISLAMABAD] Pakistan is not opposed to genetically modified (GM) food crops but is concerned about biosafety, food security and potential health and environmental risks, say top officials, justifying a temporary ban ordered this month (July) on field trials and imports of GM maize. 

“Traditional maize varieties grown here are giving more than adequate yields of around four tons per hectare and there is no pest threat that necessitates allowing in GM maize”

Syed Waseem-ul-Hassan, Ministry of National Food Security and Research

Syed Waseem-ul-Hassan, food commissioner at the Ministry of National Food Security and Research, tells SciDev.Net that the present government is not against GM crops but would like to ensure that local maize varieties are not contaminated through cross-pollination as various studies report.

“At present, there is hardly any need to introduce GM maize [that is being described as pest-resistant and high-yielding] into the country. Traditional maize varieties grown here are giving more than adequate yields of around four tons per hectare and there is no pest threat that necessitates allowing in GM maize,” the official says.

‘’The government is also interested in ensuring that farmers are not denied their collective right to have unimpeded access to seeds,’’ he adds. 

There is a need to first develop ‘’effective regulatory frameworks” for GM food crops and ensure that they meet the same safety requirements as traditional foods, Shahid Mansoor, director of the National Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, tells SciDev.Net.

According to Khalid Mehmood Khokhar, president of Pakistan Kissan Ittehad, a farmers’ rights organisation, maize crop is wind-pollinated and GM maize can contaminate traditional maize crops within a five-kilometre radius. There are fears that once traditional crops are contaminated with GM maize through cross-pollination, farmers would become dependent on multinational corporations for seeds and other farm inputs.

Khokhar says the experience with GM cotton crops has not been encouraging as farmers have continued to suffer major production losses since 2014 when planting with Monsanto’s GM cotton varieties first began. “The annual crop production has shown a constant declining trend from over 14 million bales to less than 10 million bales (each weighing 170 kilograms),’’ he says.

Zaigham Abbas Baloch, deputy director at the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (PEPA), tells SciDev.Net that the suspension is temporary but requires firms involved with the GM maize project to not engage in seed import, field trials, research activities and data sharing with any other organisation or academic institution until the country’s top leadership decides on the national policy on GM crops.

The National Biosafety Committee, which is a part of PEPA, noted, at a meeting held earlier this year, that the cultivation of Monsanto Corporation’s GM cotton had not resulted in increased crop production or reduced pest resistance, Baloch tells SciDev.Net.

An official at Monsanto, which was recently acquired by Bayer, said on condition of anonymity that the government’s move will “create uncertainty among agricultural corporations which have invested heavily in setting up GM technology in the country and create rifts in trust between these corporations and farmers”.

"The government should ensure timely, science-based decisions for the introduction of latest agriculture technologies in Pakistan. Such enabling environment will allow farmers the benefits of higher yields and better incomes," a Bayer official said, asking not to be named.
 
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.