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6-Regulation: Pakistan opens doors to GM seed

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TITLE:  Pakistan opens doors to GM seed
SOURCE: Inter Press Service/Asia Times, Hong Kong, by Nadeem Iqbal
DATE:   Nov 15, 2002

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Pakistan opens doors to GM seed

ISLAMABAD - Seeing how hard it is to curb the smuggling of genetically
modified (GM) seed, Pakistan hopes that its new approach - lifting a ban on the
importation of such seeds and going for better regulation instead - will give
it more control over the use of genetically altered products.

Officials at the department of agriculture say that by the end of this
month, the government's ban will be lifted on genetically modified seed imports
that have been deemed legal in their countries of origin.

"We know that the 'unidentified' genetically modified organisms [GMOs] are
landing on the Pakistani market from Australia, the United States and
neighboring China - and could be hazardous," an agriculture ministry official, who
asked to remain anonymous, said. "So the only way to mitigate against damage is
to regulate, by asking the importers to get a certificate from the seed
department after disclosing the name of the manufacturer and other
characteristics of the seeds," the official said.

This will allow the entry of seeds from key producers of GM products,
including the United States and China, and officials say that obliging importers to
show the source of their GM seed imports would at least allow the government
to keep track of what is coming into the country.

Today, the black market in GM seeds is thriving. GM corn, wheat, cotton and
vegetable seeds - which have a reputation of producing a high-yielding crops
that require no outlays on pesticides or fertilizer - are readily available
in Pakistan. A packet of genetically altered cotton seeds can be bought for
about US$2.

However, activists worry that the Pakistani government is easing up on GM
rules at a time when its budding biotechnology sector is still without
comprehensive guidelines to regulate the commercial use of GMOs. For almost two
years, food rights activists and government scientists have been urging the
government to introduce regulations to control the commercial use of GMOs and GM
products in the country.

These regulations, they say, would control not only imported GM material but
boost Pakistan's indigenous research into genetically modified organisms and
allow scientists to release them into the field.

Biotechnology experts - who have been working on indigenous GMOs at the
National Agriculture Research Center and the National Institute of Biotechnology
and Genetic Engineering - have been asking Islamabad to enact biosafety laws
under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which Pakistan ratified in

Government scientists say that delays in introducing guidelines will leave
Pakistan behind in research, which they see as vital for its food security
needs. "At the laboratory level, Pakistan has developed GMOs of cotton,
sugarcane, soyabean and tomatoes, but these cannot be declared in the absence of
biosafety laws. Moreover, quantification of benefits cannot be ascertained unless
these GMOs are released," the chairman of the national Commission on
biotechnology, Dr Anwar Nasim, said.

Rights activists and non-government groups also say that the government's
rules for GMOs need to go beyond laboratory or transportation handling as
outlined in UN instruments.

Aftab Alam of Action Aid says that the guidelines do not cover the trade in
GM products or identify and evaluate potential adverse effects on the
environment or human health. Attempts by the government to thrash out biosafety
guidelines earlier this year stalled, and the costs of the delay in drawing up
these regulations are already being felt.

In early September, farmers in Pakistan's Hydrabad district complained to
the agriculture ministry that 1,600 hectares of planted cotton had been hit by
an unknown disease that had turned the otherwise white flower of the cotton
plant red.

Following an inspection of the site, government scientists declared that
genetically engineered cotton, or Bt cotton, smuggled from Australia in hand
luggage, had been sown on the land despite a government ban on such imports. The
exact cause of the reddening disease is still being investigated.

In Goth Allah Wasayah village in southern Sindh province, farmer Muhammad
Ramzan, who planted Bt cotton in a 14-hectare field, found that in the space of
two months an unknown reddish disease had destroyed his crops. Bt cotton is
grown from cotton seeds spliced with genes taken from the bacterium Bacillus
thuringiensis (Bt), which is deadly to the bollworm pest.

It was amid such reports that Pakistan decided in September to lift the ban
on importing GM seeds. More than 20 million of Pakistan's 143 million people
depend on cotton for their livelihood, and the country gets 60 percent of its
annual foreign exchange earnings from the crop. Failures of Bt crops have
also been reported in recent months in neighboring India, and some states there
have banned the sale of Bt cotton seeds.

Government research work on GE cotton in Pakistan began in the mid-1990s by
the Nuclear Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering after
successive cotton harvests were hit by pests, causing extensive damage to the
cotton-based farm economy.

Despite the ill effects recently attributed to GE cotton, Pakistani
scientists have long held that GE cotton varieties could be created to ensure a
disease-free crop that would result in low costs for farmers and greater
predictability in export earnings.

Nasim says cotton curl-leaf disease alone causes $120 million in losses
every year, but scientists cannot release resistant varieties unless biosafety
laws are in place.


Hartmut Meyer       from Nov 11 - Nov 17
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