Biosafety body approves GM seeds without consultation
ISLAMABAD: Commercialisation of genetically modified (GM) seeds, which could cause cancer according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), has been approved without consultation with key stakeholders such as farmers, environmentalists and consumers.
The National Bio-safety Committee (NBC), which examines seed varieties for approval, gave the go-ahead to GM seeds of wheat, peas, sugarcane, potato, mustard, corn and cotton three weeks ago in its 14th meeting. According to documents available with The Express Tribune, most of the cases approved by the NBC were submitted by the institutions whose representatives were also members of its Technical Advisory Committee (TAC).
These institutions include National Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, Faisalabad, Central Cotton Research Institute, Multan and Forman Christian College, Lahore. Multinational companies such as Monsanto, Syngenta and Dupont also sought approval for their GM seeds. In the meeting, Ministry of Climate Change Secretary Sayed Akif Ahmed told the NBC that they had been criticised for not following proper procedures and taking hasty decisions due to growing commercial interest in genetically modified organisms (GMO).
Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency Director General Irfan Tariq recalled that the committee had approved 70 GM seeds out of the 119 under scrutiny in its previous meeting. The committee had permitted Monsanto and Dupont to commercially use GM corn without conducting large-scale trials and risk assessments and by by-passing biosafety laws.
The government has now reversed this decision. Despite the criticism, the committee approved 49 cases of laboratory genetic manipulation, import, field trials and commercialisation of GM crops in the 14th meeting and also gave the green signal to 22 varieties of BT cotton. The NBC also allowed some companies exemption from field trials of their GM seeds. According to the documents, the NBC granted approvals according to TAC’s recommendations. However, anti-GMO lobbyists are questioning the composition of TAC.
“It was a deliberate attempt by the National Bio-safety Committee to engage in low-profile discussions and proceedings on GMOs to avoid any outcry from the farmers and conscious citizens,” a source privy to the matter said.
He added large-scale cultivation of GM corn and BT cotton, a genetically modified variety of cotton which produces an insecticide for bollworm, could potentially threaten local seed varieties through cross-pollination. On the other hand, GMO lobbyists argue that genetically engineered seeds are high yielding and insect resistant.
However, their argument has not withstood the test in countries such as India, China and Australia where the per-acre yield has gradually dropped and new pests have emerged. These countries have now banned cultivation of GM corn or other transgenic food crops. The source said there were similarities in agro-climatic conditions between some Indian states such as Haryana, Punjab and Rajasthan, and Pakistan where BT cotton was being cultivated. He said more than 86% of BT cotton was cultivated in Sindh and Punjab where pink bollworm infestation had been reported since 2011. He said Pakistan had failed to meet its cotton production target of 15 million bales in 2015-16 and had only harvested 9.5 million bales.