Controversy over commercial use of GM corn seeds

ASHFAK BOKHARI

A HEATED controversy is raging over whether or not the government has given a go-ahead to some multinationals to make commercial sale of GM corn seeds at a time when the Seed (Amendment) Bill, which allows it, has yet to be passed by the Senate.

The companies claim to have received a formal permission and licences from the Ministry of Climate Change. But in response to a point of order raised by an opposition MNA in the National Assembly a fortnight ago, two federal ministers Khurram Dastgir and Sikandar Hayat Khan Bosan categorically denied that the government had given licence to any multinational company for commercial trial of GM (genetically modified) corn seeds. GM corn is stated to be a crop with serious side-effects because of cross-pollination that can contaminate other non-GM crops within a range of 200-500 metres.

The question that remains unanswered is which authorities have given permission to the seed companies. The National Bio-safety Centre, whose committee normally gives approval, is not functional these days and there is none to monitor the new technology and gather data.

However, the permission, if at all, has been given without conducting the required field trials of the GM seeds and this, the critics say, constitutes a clear violation of the national bio-safety laws and the international standard operating procedures. But Croplife, the industry’s representative body, insists that the authorities concerned have already given the go-ahead.

The country’s laboratories are not in a position to handle the situation and its institutions are also not capable of monitoring and regulating the GM corn crop.

Croplife also claims that the Technical Advisory Committee’s sub-committee for field monitoring visited all trial sites in each growing season for collecting data and assessing compliance. The reports for each season and each year were submitted to the relevant departments and ministries.

Besides, it said, the sub-committee for GM corn commercialisation had thoroughly reviewed all the field trial reports to assess the risk and concluded that GM corn is as safe as non-GM corn.

Maybe, instead of field trials involving farmers, some observers say, small-scale tests in confined areas were conducted in certain government institutions and universities. No insect resistance management programme was considered and no proper Refugia was planned. Refugia means a 5-10pc area covered by a crop where non-GM seeds are cultivated to delay resistance.

Monsanto, a leading US seed multinational, claims that the government had recently allowed commercialisation of its GM corn in Pakistan after a long and rigorous process starting from 2009. Aamir Mirza, CEO, of Monsanto Pakistan says that “the government has accepted our two technologies namely Insect Protection and Herbicide Tolerant.”

He said that a monitoring sub-committee had visited fields for assessment of trials a number of times in each growing season and during this period, the company had followed a proper procedure for seeking approval from the National Biodiversity Committee and it went for seed imports and field trials only after the approval was received.

A former chief of Environment Protection Agency, Asif Shuja, says the decision had been taken in haste by the government with no proper procedure followed or risk assessment carried out. This could raise grave problems in future.

The country’s laboratories, he says, are not in a position to handle the situation and its institutions are also not capable of monitoring and regulating the GM corn crop. There is need for a proper risk assessment of the new technology and to ascertain whether the manpower, institutions and system available at the moment could tackle the challenge.

Local seed industry officials are of the view that since the government has no option but to support the biotech industry because of political reasons, what is needed is a strong regulatory system to strengthen the biotech research and development activities.

According to the findings of the World Bank’s International Agency for Research on Cancer made public in March 2015, glyphosate — a chemical in herbicides that are widely used on GM crops — is ‘probably carcinogenic to humans’. Glyphosate is used in a US multinational’s branded herbicide Roundup Ready, which can be sprayed on crops that have been genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate.

Many Pakistani NGOs and farmer organisations have been opposing the GM technology for its anti-farmer bias and health risks. Many of them have written to the Senate’s chairman, asking him to reject the draft Seed Act 2014 and enact a new law in its place that protects the interests of small farmers who under the present bill could be fined and imprisoned for preserving, selling and exchanging seeds, a centuries-old tradition that has helped them produce grains in surplus.

Published in Dawn, Business & Finance weekly, April 4th, 2016

http://www.dawn.com/news/1249740/controversy-over-commercial-use-of-gm-corn-seeds

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