ISLAMABAD: The government has approved over 100 varieties of genetically modified corn and cotton to be sold in the market, but the move has drawn concern from some agriculture experts.
They have argued that the regulatory system and national bio-safety laws, and the standard operating procedure for the commercialisation of genetically engineered technology have been ignored.
Defending the government, recently appointed Ministry of Climate Change Secretary Syed Abu Ahmad Akif, expressed his team’s confidence in the integrity of the approval process.
Experts say bio-safety laws, SOPs for commercialisation of genetically engineered technology have been ignored
He said: “The technical advisory committee (TAC), made up of agriculture scientists from around the country, recommended 113 varieties of GM corn and cotton for field-testing and commercialization. All these recommendations have been approved.”
However, experts maintain that multinational seed producing companies had only conducted small scale two-year regulatory trials in confined fields at their premises.
These companies did not carry out large-scale nationwide adaptability trials before selling genetically modified technologies to local farmers as required under international and national laws.
The trials are necessary to check the performance of genetically engineered seeds in domestic environments and assess the risk of imported genetically modified technologies on the local environment and on humans.
“A unique example has been set in the world, where no risk assessment has been conducted of genetically engineered technologies,” a senior official from the Pakistan Agriculture Research Centre (PARC) said.
One of the main concerns of many agriculture experts is that the approved varieties of genetically modified corn and cotton contain herbicide-resistant gene. The PARC official said: “These GM technologies require extensive pesticide sprays, such as Roundup glyphosate, to kill pests and control weeds. Over 34 species of weed have developed resistance against glyphosate around the world, causing super weeds to develop.”
Last year, the World Health Organisation announced that glyphosate, which is a key ingredient in pesticides such as the Roundup herbicide, is a human carcinogen.
PTI MNA Dr Arif Alvi also expressed concerns over the matter in parliament last week. In response to his questions, both Commerce Minister Khuram Dastagir Khan and Minister for National Food Security and Research Malik Sikandar Hayat Khan Bosan stated that multinational seed and pesticide production companies were not permitted to market their genetically modified technologies.
However, the country head of the multinational genetically modified seed production company Dupont, Nadeem Mirza, told Dawn that his company can now sell new genetically modified corn seed technologies to farmers.
Aamir M Mirza, the country head at Monsanto, said: “Large scale trials could not be carried out until these technologies, tested and approved in other countries, were approved by local authorities. Large scale trials will now be done after the government has permitted us.”
PTI’s Dr Alvi has said he will move a breach of privilege motion for being mislead in parliament.
“Genetically engineered seed technologies have not been tested in large scale areas. GM corn is a highly cross-pollinating crop and can contaminate other, non-GM crops. GM technologies might be the need of the future, but all the safeguards must be followed before alien varieties of crops are introduced in Pakistan that can endanger its indigenous strategic crops,” he said.
Some of the first countries to adopt genetically engineered cotton, such as India, China and Australia, have not allowed genetically modified corn to be grown on their soil, fearing health and environmental hazards.
Dr Inayatullah, who has a PhD in Entomology (pest control) from the Oklahoma State University, said that once sown, genetically modified crops such as corn will interfere with indigenous crop varieties and harm the natural evolutionary process. He argued that genetically modified varieties would give rise to new pests that would likely endanger Pakistan’s indigenous crops, particularly sugarcane, rice, wheat and sorghum.
“GM crops trigger allergies, diabetes and cancer. This is true in America, one of the largest consumers of GM foods and highest numbers of diabetes and cancer patients,” he said.
Experts have said that in 2014, multinationals had asked to import genetically modified corn and cotton seeds from the United States and the Philippines for large scale testing to assess environmental and health hazards. According to documents available with Dawn, they were not given permission.
In 2014, the Lahore High Court ordered the climate change ministry not to issue licences and no-objection certificates for the trial and commercialisation of genetically modified technologies.