15 - 21, 2010

Government wants to enhance the yields of crops through genetically modified seeds or biotechnology. Notably, it is moving in to action to increase cotton production to 21 million tons by 2015 and its yield per acre hectare to 1060 kilogram. Use of Bt cotton though is not popular across the country, yet farming community is harnessing genetically modified cotton crops in different parts of the country. Since the seeds are not widely registered and frequently smuggled from across the border, the side effects of genetically modified cotton seeds on agriculture are not completely ruled out. Sindh government recently has emphasized to promote utilization of approved Bt cotton in farms.

A US based biotech company Monsanto is active in Pakistan to get the rights of disseminating genetically modified seeds or other biotechnology in the country. A controversy erupted among the farming community in Pakistan's neighbouring country about the US company. Reportedly, the biotechnology researcher was questioned for its biotechnology application in the largest South Asian agriculture economy. The reports went to the extent of saying that US lobbies were pressurising Indian government for carving out place for the company's product lines in the country. One thing needs no testing for its veracity is that biotechnology has become a controversial issue in India.

Is biotechnology an effective way to increase crop yield? To some, to feed mushrooming population scientific means must be deployed. Others see cost of genetically modified organism on biodiversity.

Agriculture sector is a mainstay of Pakistanís economy. However, the sector is not contributing to the economy in line with its real potential. All major crops in the country have low productivity because of inputs mismanagement. It is said that application of biotechnology on agriculture sector and genetically modified crops can increase the agriculture outputs manifold. This technology has added 47 million tons to total corn production in 25 countries.

For agro-developing countries that have different reasons of low agriculture productivity compared to agro-developed nations, the biotechnology can be a trigger of real potential of agriculture sector. This technology is also important for them to overcome the hurdles in achieving high agriculture productivity. As far as cotton is concerned, this crop contributing over 8 percent of value added sector of Pakistan, 2 percent to the economy, and 60 percent of exports, faces manifold challenges to its production. There is a shortfall in the country that consumes 15 million bales against total local production of 12 million bales. Average cotton yield of 769 kilogram per hectare is also the lowest as compared to many other countries. Lowest yield is attributed to cost and quality of seeds and inputs and pests. It is said Bt cotton holds the resistance to virus attacks.

Biotechnology is used to transform genes of seed so that crop production is not affected with herbicide, pesticide, unsuitable terrain, salinity, inclement weather, drought in arid zone etc. The technology also minimizes the energy and water consumption for agriculture production. Other advanced methods include grafting of plants together and addition of substance to soil to manage pest problems. Overall, biotech reduces the cost besides augmenting crop productivity and its yield.

The importance of biotechnology was realized in Pakistan back in 1960 when genetics engineering was emerging as a recognized science of developing high yield seeds and efficient plants in some Far East countries.

Government established National Commission on Biotechnology in 2001 to provide technical assistance and information resources to professionals and biotechnology institutes in the country.

A major biotech breakthrough occurred in agriculture when Pakistanís leading biotech research entity National Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) came up with a remedy to perennial virus of cotton known as cotton leaf curl virus (CLCV). The pest is dangerous to the production of crop as it mows down the otherwise good produce. The rate of infestation has been higher over a time as significant portion of cotton crops is lost to the virus. Application of substandard and uncertified Bt cotton seed is also responsible for counterproductive result of biotechnology. CLCV has been a serious threat to cotton crop since 1987. According to an estimate, the virus had caused a loss of 543,294 bales of cotton with infested area estimated at 97,580 hectares during 1992-93 in Pakistan.

However, yields per acre from wheat and rice have improved substantially since the 1970's drought-like condition, which made the entry in Pakistan new seeds of rice from International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) Manila, Philippine.

Salinity and water logging are two ominous problems of agriculture sector of Pakistan making fertile lands uncultivated as well as scaling down crop production. A research says the country loses over 30 percent of its agriculture productivity to water logging and salinity. While the twin problems are extant across the plains of the country, they are more pronounced in agriculture lands of Sindh because of its closeness with the Arabian Sea. Around forty percent of its culturable lands are saline. Seawater intrusion has rendered two million acres of its agriculture lands barren until recently. Western countries are practicing extensively biotechnological techniques for the reclamation of saline lands. NIBGE is said to have reclaimed approximately 11 million acres of saline soils through biotechnology. The biological methods developed by the institute were imitated by international atomic energy agency as models. That is a manifestation of country reaching to certain international standard in GMO.

Producing energy from biomass is another area that is untapped in Pakistan. Developed economies are promoting ways in order that transform agriculture wastes in to energy. Use of microbes on wastes can by fruitful in energy generation.

Application of biotechnology in making use of minerals is rapidly becoming prevalent world over since it does not only slash the cost of recovery of metals but also minimizes the impact of extraction on environment. Pakistan has huge mineral reserves of copper and gold in Reko Diq and Saindak in Balochistan as well as potential estimated reserve of around 10 billion tons granite in Karunjhar range of mountains in Nagarparkar in Sindh. Conventional methods of extraction are costly while bioprocessing of minerals requires relatively small investment. Once fully exploited, these and other mineral deposits can enhance exports from Pakistan in addition to expedite industrialization process in the country, thereby creating employment opportunities.

In Pakistan, various professionals and education and research institutions are conducting researches on development of biotechnology products for pharmaceutical industry, agriculture industry, and industrial goods for wide applicability in industrial processes. Some of them have succeeded in developing products in their laboratories, which are available for commercialization. Few biotechnology products include disease free potato, disease free sugarcane, transgenic basmati and cotton, and Bt biopesticide.

University of Karachi's HEJ research institute has gone one-step further by distributing virus free varieties of banana in the country. It has also designed saline-resistant seeds especially oilseed that can be cultivable on the coastal wastelands. Use of biotech in soybean and canola can also reduce the import bill of Pakistan.

Dearth of modern technology and mechanization are prime culprits of low crop yields in Pakistan. Agriculture produce may be bartered with technology of collaborating countries. These exchanges will build agriculture sector of the country on sustainable basis and contribute in global food safety. However, it is a waste of money and time if foreign technologies are preferred over local institutional findings as far as application of GMO is concerned. It is also important to monitor what kinds of technologies are transferred in the country. Technology is useful for both country and company, but it is solely a commercial venture for company. Therefore, government should dwell on the long-term impacts of foreign technology especially when it is introduced by a company under controversy. It is worth mentioning that international agriculture researches inculpate climate change for bringing down crop yields, and recommend biological researches and use of commercial hybrid seeds that reduce consumption of waters and fertilizers on agriculture.