Pakistan likely to adopt more GMO crops

By Muhammad Kashif Tunio

June 19, 2019

Pakistan is dominated by agriculture. The sector provides a livelihood for more than 47 percent of the country’s inhabitants, accounting for 24 percent of its gross domestic product and about 70 percent of its foreign exchange.

Pakistan meets its own agricultural requirements and also exports crops to Afghanistan, the Middle East and several Central Asian nations. However, in recent years, Pakistan’s agricultural sector has faced serious challenges. Drought, increasing soil salinity, plant stress and other impacts of climate change threaten the nation’s stable agricultural growth rates, which are essential for keeping the economy on track.

These threats have raised concerns about food security in Pakistan, where the current population of about 200 million is projected to reach 240 million by 2035. While other parts of the world have adopted genetically modified (GM) crops in order to tackle similar challenges, the use of GM crops remains both limited and controversial in Pakistan.

The only GM crop approved and grown in the country is Bt cotton, which is cultivated primarily in southern Punjab.

In 2005, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) provided farmers with about 40,000 kilograms of insect-resistant GM cotton seeds, which were grown on about 8,000 acres of land in the Bahawalpur, Multan, Muzaffer Garh and Karor Pakka regions.

Farmers tested the GM crops for their resistance and susceptibility to different insects, high temperatures and drought and then compared the results with traditional cotton varieties grown in similar areas. The outcomes were encouraging and pointed to the role that GM crops can play in solving key issues in Pakistan’s agriculture sector, such as enhanced production and disease resistance. The adoption of herbicide-tolerant and pest-resistant crops would also allow farmers to reduce their use of harmful and costly chemicals.

GM safety measures

Pakistan has ratified both the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol. It also enacted its own biosafety rules in 2005 in order to get the maximum benefits from GM technology while ensuring the safety of humans and the environment. These rules govern the manufacture, import and storage of genetically modified organisms. Following the adoption of the rules, Pakistan developed National Biosafety Guidelines that are subject to rigorous oversight by multiple committees.

The Ministry of Environment developed its GMO guidelines in May 2005 in accordance with the guidelines set forth by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) and United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). All relevant stakeholders within academia, research and development organizations, the private sector and NGOs have participated in formalizing these guidelines, which were established in part to avoid any negligence by laboratory workers, researchers and end users.

Unfortunately, the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency has not been able to establish a strong setup for GMO risk assessment. Nor has Pakistan signed on to the International Plant Protection Convention. If Pakistan does not move forward in these areas, its vital agricultural sector may face economic disruption and the introduction of species that pose serious threats to existing crops.

Because of the alarming rate of population growth in Pakistan, it seems inevitable that other GM crops will join Bt cotton and eventually be grown commercially. Pakistani farmers are realizing that GM crops may be the only viable route for addressing the problems they face as they try to feed a rapidly growing population while simultaneously contending with increasingly expensive farming inputs. For Pakistan, the hope that GMOs bring far outweigh the concerns.