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[ISLAMABAD] The multinational agriculture firm Monsanto has been given government permission to conduct a third round of trials of its genetically modified (GM) maize in Pakistan.

Monsanto's 'VT Double Pro' corn is a pest-resistant GM maize variety that has been approved for cultivation in 20 countries including Argentina, Brazil, China, Colombia, Honduras, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Philippines and South Africa, a Monsanto official said.

Under Pakistani law, GM maize varieties must undergo small-scale regulatory trials before larger multi-location field trials can be approved. Monsanto Pakistan conducted two crop trials in December 2010 and February 2011 at its research farm near Lahore.

Permission for the next round of trials has now been granted by the National Biosafety Committee (NBC)*, despite continued controversy over the initial trials, which became mired in a spat between the scientists responsible for  their oversight.

In 2011, a field monitoring sub-committee of the NBC's Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) was assigned to submit a report on the initial, together with recommendations, to the TAC — which is authorised to take a final decision on the outcome.

However in June last year, the sub-committee's report on the trials was criticised by senior Pakistani scientists, who told Pakistan's largest English language daily, The News International, that the sub-committee report had been prepared by Monsanto Pakistan, and that the trials may not have met all the necessary requirements.

SciDev.Net was unable to independently verify these allegations.

The criticism prompted the head of the sub-committee, Ifthikar Ahmed, to resign in protest.

Ahmed, who now heads the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), has insisted that proper trial protocols were followed, and said criticism had been expressed about the report's veracity before it was finalised. This, he said, had "dented [his] credibility".  

However the current director of the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, Sohail Hameed has spoken out in support of criticism allegedly made by his predecessor, Zafar Khalid. Hameed told SciDev.Net that in his view the initial trials report had been "concocted", and that any malpractice, if proven, should be "brought to book".

Last month, separate concerns about the potential for GM maize to contaminate nearby farms were reported by The Express Tribune, although none of the sources quoted by the paper were speaking on the record.

The head of Monsanto Pakistan, Aamir Mirza refused to comment on claims that the company wrote last year's sub-committee report.

He told SciDev.Net that the next round of trials would provide further proof to all stakeholders that its VT Double Pro variety was "comparable to conventional corn from a risk assessment point of view", and was "unlikely to cause any bio-safety risks".

* Clarification issued 4 May:


According to TAC member Yusuf Zafar, who is also the director general of the Agriculture and Biotechnology Division at the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, the NBC's technical advisory committee (TAC) recommended in February that Monsanto proceed with a fresh round of GM maize trials.


In a telephone interview, Zafar said the NBC had been unable to hold a meeting to issue the approval, due to the devolution in 2011 of several relevant ministries, including the Environment Ministry, which oversees the NBC.


He said that in the meantime, the TAC's recommendation had been considered sufficient by government officials for Monsanto Pakistan to act on the TAC's recommendations, and that the company is proceeding on that basis.