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Pakistan to approve commercially planting of GM cornqrcode

May. 17, 2011

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May. 17, 2011

In a major policy shift, Pakistan is considering approval for commercial planting of genetically modified (GM) corn, which is a staple food as well as a delicacy for many people.

Unfortunately, sources say, with virtually no scientific debate, Pakistan has allowed various stages of trials in a bid to allow commercial planting of GM corn. “No one with the slightest idea about genetically modified crops and agricultural biotechnology denies that there are potential risks associated with planting GM maize/corn, such as the unknown consequences of implanted genes spreading to native varieties coupled with its other adverse affects. This serious concern was also raised in Mexico, land of domesticated corn, after a field trial of GM maize was authorised.

Pakistan’s locally developed varieties are at stake even with permission for conducting regulatory trials, sources warned saying bio safety laws need to be implemented in letter and spirit if we want to grow GM crops, and this is where Pakistan is not doing too well. “Our regulatory bodies do not have the capacity yet to properly assess the benefits and dangers of genetically modified crops,” sources said.

Maize or corn is not a major crop but is highly important as it is part of human consumption as well as animal feed. In fact, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa province, the white maize/corn varieties are purely for human consumption. While in countryside, Makai ki Roti or corn flour bread is a popular delicacy, which is part and parcel of the rich local culture.

So far, the companies seeking approval of GM maize have completed regulatory trials and repeat large-scale trials have not been held to get scientific data in local conditions. Without the large-scale trials and the hurry in getting GM maize/corn approved shows how effective public relation and lobbying can be in our country, sources say.

In fact, while Ministry of Environment is on the verge of giving approval to GM maize/corn, no national insect resistance management plan exists. It is just like trying to drive a car without learning how to drive it. No precautionary measure is being recommended to avoid cross pollination that could practically disfigure local maize breeds.

Maize or corn can cross pollinate very easily through wind. Thus farmers who plant GM maize will unwittingly be polluting the maize/corn fields, which do not grow the GM maize and thus literally ruining the current crop varieties. The regulatory bodies including the Ministry of Environment have no clue how to create separate zones for GM and Non-GM corn/maize, sources claimed. A minimum distance of 200-300 meters must be maintained between fields to prevent GM maize from polluting the non-GM ones. And by not ensuring crop zoning, Pakistan faces the danger of biodiversity loss. Bt corn/maize can easily contaminate non-GM crops through wind related cross pollination. In Pakistan, where crops stand side by side, hardly having one or two feet gap. There is no way to enforce distances between crops to stop GM/Bt maize or corn from polluting the non-GM corn/maize.

When genetically modified maize or cotton crops are allowed in other parts of globe, the regulators ensured that a refugia be implemented. Refugia is a portion of land in which non-GM crops are planted so that insects’ resistance to GM crops can be delayed. It is about 5-10 per cent of the total area of a farmer’s crop.

In Pakistan, nobody seems bothered about implementing this. That can mean a severe effect of natural bio-diversity. These potential problems will be created by not taking a proper look at these issues, the sources said. Unfortunately, the big multinational seed companies have so far given no clue about how Bt corn/maize contamination can be prevented in the country.

Sources added that the important questions related to this are: Why thereof a need for GM/Bt corn/maize in Pakistan? Is there a market demand, is there an export market waiting to be explored by Pakistan. Whether GM crops benefit all farmers depends on how the technology is used.

Sources were of the view that national agricultural policies need to take into account the interests and priorities of farmers to ensure that GM crops meet locally defined needs. They added that in case of food crops, regulatory trials could result in cross pollination with local varieties if precautionary measures pertaining to bio safety guidelines are not adopted.

It is time for the public and farmers to enter this debate, sources stressed. We should have the right to decide whether we need GM corn/maize in Pakistan. Remember, its something you may end up eating. So be sure what you are getting, sources warned. They added that even neighbouring India stopped trail process on GM corn mainly due to such valid concerns.

The big challenge ahead for those engaged in the GM crops approval process in the country is not how to promote or stop the technology but rather to find ways to ensure that GM crops benefit the country and farmers, not just the multinational corporations who always look at Pakistan as a big Agriculture profit opportunity, sources emphasized.

Meanwhile, when contacted, Khawaja Muhammad Naeem, Federal Secretary Environment, who is also Chairman National Bio safety Committee, said keeping in view developments in the field of genetically modified crops, it is essential to be prepared for accepting such new technologies. However, he said, this process is very lengthy and involved scientists and other persons concerned. He added that initially lab trials were allowed for GM corn in Pakistan. It takes years to conduct such trials and after evaluation of its conclusion, comprising huge documents, trials of GM corn are allowed in restricted area with a view to preparing scientific report on its outcome.

To a question, he said, there is nothing wrong in conducting such trials in controlled environment. However, he added, we should not allow commercial cultivation of these crops as there is no food security concern here in our country.

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