As pressure mounts from agricultural scientists and farmers, the government has stopped the commercial sale of genetically modified (GM) corn seeds, in an about-turn after its earlier permission to certain multinational companies to market their seeds, but without meeting the basic criteria.
A federal secretary, who was part of a recent meeting held at the Ministry of Climate Change, told The Express Tribune that the stakeholders present in the huddle decided that the green signal for commercial sale of GM corn seeds would be taken back until a new decision in order to appease the scientists and farmers can be reached.
“The meeting participants agreed to look into the matter again and consider all aspects including implications for the agriculture sector,” a senior official said.
Already, the Ministry of Climate Change had awarded licences to different companies including prominent names like Monsanto and DuPont/Pioneer.
The government allowed the use of two varieties of GM corn seeds namely Insect Protection and Herbicide Tolerant. However, the ministry kept the matter secret and even minutes of a relevant meeting were not provided to the ministries and departments concerned because of fears that the information would be shared.
The move sparked criticism as the scientists and farmers asked how the government could give the approval without undertaking a large-scale open-field trial of the technology in Pakistan. They called it a violation of the national bio-safety laws and the international standard operating procedures.
Experts argue that no authority can approve the commercial sale of GM corn seeds or any other GM crop without a large-scale open-field trial and Pakistan has become a unique case where such approval has been given.
Commenting on the latest development, Monsanto official Aamir Mirza said the company had neither been invited to the last meeting nor had it been officially informed about the decision. “It may be their internal meeting and we have not got any information,” he said.
Mirza believes that the promotion of biotechnology will not only provide immediate benefits for the Pakistani farmers, but it will also send strong signals that the country is welcoming investments in research into cutting-edge technologies. “This will improve the agriculture sector’s international competitiveness over the long term,” he remarked.
Multinational companies claim that a monitoring sub-committee visited fields a number of times for the assessment of trial operations in every growing season in an attempt to collect data and evaluate compliance. The committee has been regularly submitting season-wise and yearly reports to a technical assessment body and relevant departments and ministries, they say.
However, the experts counter that GM corn or maize is a dangerous crop because of cross-pollination that can contaminate non-GM crops within a range of 500 metres.
The climate change minister came under pressure from certain companies and that led to the grant of licences in a clandestine manner, they say.
The scientists insist that instead of big field trials involving the farmers, small-scale tests in confined areas were conducted in certain government institutions and universities, which is entirely insufficient for meeting the standards for winning a licence for commercialisation of any technology.