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TITLE:  GM crops could help alleviate food shortage in Pakistan
SOURCE: Daily Times, Pakistan, by Farooq Khan
DATE:   Feb 26, 2003

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GM crops could help alleviate food shortage in Pakistan

LAHORE: The inaccessibility of cheap foodstuff means 70 percent of the
country's population faces a daily struggle to feed itself. And the
increasing use of pesticides, herbicides and insecticides in agriculture
is causing environmental pollution while increasing labour cost and
decreasing yields.

A viable way to make agriculture less costly and more labour effective
could be the cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops. However,
there are reservations about GM crops, and concerns that they could have
harmful affects on vegetation and the people that consume them.

Crops can be genetically modified to grow resistance to fungal, bacterial
and viral ailments. They can also be modified to grow in restrictive
environmental conditions, like during a drought or in high salt or metal
content soil. The nutritional value of agro-products can also be
improved, adding specific nutrients.

Conventional breeding methods in agriculture have similar goals, such as
better yield, low cultivation costs and disease and pest resistance.
Conventional methods include crop hybridisation, which can take years to
do what biotechnology can do much quicker.

According to a research paper compiled at the Institute of Plant Biology,
University of Zurich, Switzerland, and faxed to Daily Times by Dr Noorul
Islam from the Agricultural Research Centre in Faisalabad, evidence from
industrial and developing countries shows that GM crops, in conjunction
with conventional agricultural practices, can contribute to a cost-
effective, sustainable, productive and sufficiently safe form of agriculture.

The same conclusion was reached by a group of renowned scientists,
Anthony Conner, Travis Glare and Jan Peter-Nap, after they examined 250
publications on the subject.

These papers included the impact of GM crops on biodiversity, the
environment and how this differed from common agricultural practices. The
impact of GM crops is very similar to the impact of traditional breeding
that has been an integral part of agriculture for many years, according
to researchers from the New Zealand Institute for Crop and Food Research,

Dr Naseem Akhtar, chairman of the National Commission on Biotechnology,
said that the risk factors regarding GM crops should be thoroughly
investigated. Farmers in Pakistan should be allowed a free hand in
choosing what kind of crops are to be cultivated, since they are the best
judges, he added. The constant unimpeded introduction of dangerous
chemicals as pesticides is also adding to the pollution of the
underground water table in our country, he said.

Daily Times has learnt that Monsanto, a multinational company that is a
proponent and developer of GM crops, has approached the Pakistan
government and offered Bacillus Thuringienis (BT) cotton, wheat, corn,
maize and rice. These crop varieties are resistant to various ailments,
and would forego the need for expensive pesticides. A 10-year study shows
that growing BT cotton in Arizona, USA, under varied soil conditions
caused a long-term population declines in the pink bollworm. The weather
and climate of Arizona is very similar to the plains of Pakistan. This
disease, known here as American Sundi, has devastated Pakistan's cotton crop.

The Federal Ministry for the Environment has asked the four provinces for
feedback, and the Punjab has already agreed. The recommendations are
lying with the ministry and the crops will be introduced pending final
approval, said Dr Ghulam Ahmed, director general agriculture (research),

The Asian Development Bank has approved a loan of $905,000 this year for
the research and cultivation of iron-rich rice. There are 1 billion
people, mostly women and children, at risk of anaemia and iron deficiency
problems in Asia, according to the ADB. This could be averted by the
introduction of this GM rice.

India's National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) fully supports
the introduction of GM varieties of rice. It endorsed the development of
rice varieties tolerant to drought, submergence and salinity, and rich in
micronutrients. However, the academy is not encouraging work on GM rice
varieties that produce drugs and pharmaceuticals

Biotech developments have not focused on crops that could tackle hunger,
said Louise Fresco of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and a
panellist at a conference on sustainable agriculture for developing
countries in Brussels. She said there was a growing gap between the
promise and the reality of the use of biotechnology and life sciences in
sustainable agriculture. The assistant director general in the
agriculture department at FAO spoke of how 85% of transonic crops, such
as corn, cannola and cotton, are designed to reduce labour and input
costs. However, crops such as chickpea, wheat, corn and cassava that
would help tackle poverty and hunger are not being cultivated as extensively.

Likewise banana, considered a favourite fruit in this region, is also a
staple food in many other regions of world. The banana plantations in
rural Sindh and Punjab are yielding fewer crops every year and the size
and quality of fruit is also declining. This is mainly due to the ever
increasing use of pesticides and insecticides, which in turn produces
resistance varieties of pests. These resistant varieties of pest then
require even higher concentrations of pesticide, thus increasing costs
and pollution, and so on.

The FAO says that new breeding methods and tools, including
biotechnology, will be helpful to develop resistant bananas for
cultivation. Since more than 50 percent of the banana germplasm (land
varieties) are sterile, biotechnology and mutation breeding are important
tools that can improve banana varieties without the threat of genetic
drift, i.e., that the modifications will be passed on to wild varieties
of banana or other plants, said the FAO.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has disputed the ethics of GM
crops. Dr Vivienne Nathanson, Head of Science and Ethics, says that a
meeting of scientists is needed to review developments in the field.

The greatest anticipated risk of GM crops that mutated genes could be
passed on to insects and animals, which could have untold effects.
Resistance genes for a pest in a crop could be passed on to a wild
variety of the plant or a weed through pollen transfer, thus creating a
resistant weed, which in itself would then become a pest. However,
studies on the risk of gene transfer are inconclusive.

But the dangers of GM crops are not just biological, but economic as
well. There are worries that the introduction of GM crops in certain
countries could lead to a dependence on the company that supplies the
seed, effectively giving that company a monopoly on the food supply of
that country. Many think it is unethical that companies can copyright
varieties of GM seeds. This has already led to problems for Monsanto,
which saw the price of its share price plummet after protests by people
in Canada, USA and Europe. The company has now been bought by Up John

Until 1999, 82% of GM crops were grown in industrial countries. Argentina
grows the most GM crops, about 17% in the developing countries, which
include China, Mexico, South Africa and others where field trials are in
the offing.