July 1, 2014
By Zofeen Ebrahim
In May, Pakistan’s Lahore High Court issued an order to stop a federal government agency from issuing licenses for genetically modified cotton and corn seeds — including those approved for use as recently as March.
The news came as a “huge relief” for Najma Sadeque, director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah and a long-time crusader for GM seed regulation.
“It bought us some more time to spread greater awareness among farmers about the dangers of GMOs [genetically modified organisms] and to desist from using GM seeds,” she told MintPress News of the historic decision.
The relief was short-lived, however. On June 26, less than a month after the order had been handed down, the government launched an appeal and the order was suspended.
Not one to give up, Sadeque said, “The struggle has just begun and now it’s our turn to fight it through.”
Manipulating Mother Nature
A public interest lawsuit was filed in the Lahore High Court in March by Shirkat Gah and Pakistan Voluntary Health & Nutrition Association, an organization working toward improving women’s reproductive health. The litigation called for a complete ban on GM crops — especially Bt cotton, which is genetically modified to produce an insecticide.
Genetic engineering or genetic modification involves manipulating an organism’s genome through the use of biotechnology, for example, to increase its resistance to pests or pesticides.
“It is the introduction of an alien gene or two of one species into another totally unrelated species,” Sadeque said, explaining her opposition to such practices.
Leading scientist Dr. Atta ur Rahman doesn’t share Sadeque’s concerns about how “unnatural” genetic modification is.
“This is happening all the time around us due to mutations caused by radiation, etc. The difference is that genetic modifications are occurring randomly, while we are now doing this with understanding and in a focused and targeted manner,” Rahman said.
He does share some of her misgivings, though.
“One needs to implement GM crop production with caution,” he said, “as our agriculture can become dependent on foreign seeds if we start importing modified seeds from abroad and that can be a national disaster!”
Rahman, an organic chemist and scholar, says GM technology offers humanity powerful benefits in the ability to engineer plants that can resist pests, herbicides and disease.
“There is not a single case of death or serious illness caused by genetically modified foods to my knowledge, although some minor allergic reactions have been reported as a rare occurrence,” he said. (Research has shown that consumption of GM soy has led to infertility in animals.)
Companies, like biotech giant Monsanto Co., can patent their GM seeds, plants and even animals, and sue any farmer who uses them without the company’s permission — even in the event of accidental contamination. While Rahman supports the use of indigenously-developed seeds, he believes foreign imports should be banned.
“As long as we own the intellectual property rights and follow the biosafety guidelines, we should not be afraid,” the former minister for science and technology said, but cautioned that even those “may only be used after a thorough analysis and study of their properties, pilot plantations and establishment of benefits.”
Sadeque worries that if the foreign corporations behind the GM seeds and crops aren’t stopped now, farmers will turn to them for seed purchases. In the process, she says, the natural seed bank would be destroyed and the farmers would grow dependent on — and be exploited by — foreign corporations, like Monsanto.
She is a strong advocate for all natural renewable resources belonging to all humanity being left unpatented. Her book, “The Great Agricultural Hoax,” explores in depth the “poisonous consequences” of engineering crops and people growing dependent on GMOs and the loss of livelihoods that will follow.
She feels that civil society, especially those working in the fields of agriculture, health and environment, need to “do more” to increase awareness about the dangers of the “private ownership of nature, including self-destruction of nature and risks to health, especially women’s — especially by a multinational from a hegemonic power.”
To avoid having to obey court instructions to address the NGOs’ complaints, Pakistan’s government transferred the secretary of the National Biosafety Committee that had approved the Bt crops.
“The Punjab chief minister had actually issued a written letter to push it through. The new appointee, [a member of the National Assembly], refused to take up the matter on the grounds that she knew nothing about the subject,” Sadeque said.
Once the government had approved the Bt crops, the NGOs’ case no longer held ground.
But all was not lost. On May 12, Pakistani farmers challenged the government. In a public interest petition filed by the Kisan Board Pakistan, a farmers rights network, the government’s National Biosafety Committee was asked to stop issuing licenses for GM crops until a proper legal framework was set in place that could reliably assess GM seeds.
This court ordered that until a legal framework was in place, and unless the pest-resistant varieties of cotton and corn seeds were scientifically assessed, all new and previous licences for the sale and supply of GM seeds issued by the government were revoked with immediate effect.
This decision also affected the varieties of GM seeds — 23 varieties of Bt cotton and 14 new varieties of Bt corn — that had already been approved for release in the market in March this year.
Of the 14 varieties of maize seeds approved for use in Pakistan, MIR162 and MON810 have already been banned in China and parts of the European Union.
Monsanto: unethically and illegally spreading seeds
Sadeque says agrochemical and biotech companies, like Monsanto, are never constrained by ethical considerations.
“[Monsanto] is bound to keep digging into its bottomless bag of dirty tricks to get around restrictions placed on it as it has throughout in whichever country it’s gone to,” she said.
Meanwhile, she says, Monsanto can continue with business as usual because the issue has never been publicly debated or placed before parliament.
“They have spread in the fields through illegal GM seeds. The rationale has always been that since it’s already there and can’t be put back into Pandora’s box, we may as well accept it. It has always been a unilateral decision by some authority — political or bureaucratic,” she said.
In April, France banned Monsanto’s MON810 – the only GM crop allowed in the EU — after the French parliament adopted a law prohibiting the cultivation of any variety of GM corn or maize, including those approved for growth by the EU, citing environmental risks.
The law will go the Senate for approval, but even if it is rejected there, the National Assembly will have the final say. If approved, it will also ban another GM variety, Pioneer 1507 jointly developed by DuPont and Dow Chemical, which could be approved by the EU executive later this year if 19 out of 28 member states fail to gather enough votes to block it.
Undoing the damage
Bt cotton was officially approved for use in Pakistan in 2010, but GM cotton seeds have been smuggled into the country since 2005. Today, it is used in 85 percent of Pakistan’s cotton belt.
However, there is evidence that Pakistan’s cotton industry has not benefitted from the introduction of the Bt seeds, as production has remained static at about 11-13 million bales per year since the introduction of the GM seed.
Since indigenous seeds remain, it’s unclear whether the damage has been done or if there’s still time to recoup.
“It would require uprooting the entire contaminated crop, destroying all GM/Bt seeds, and growing non-cotton crops — preferably food crops — for several seasons before reverting to organic cotton, so that Bt plants can be eliminated,” Sadeque explained.
In the meantime, she warned, cotton farmers would need to be compensated for lost earnings for a year or two.
“The cotton industry would have to import raw cotton; exports would be seriously affected. It would cost a fortune while sustaining immediate loss,” she said, adding, “I have never known any government to date for which the public interest and future survival has taken precedence over short-term profit. But then, miracles — like revolutions — do happen!”
Introducing these seeds was meant to boost agricultural productivity, but there are farmers like Sarfraz Ahmed Khan, vice president of the Kisan Board of Pakistan, who believe that the yield per acre would improve considerably if the government promoted modern farming technologies and methods, as well as helped farmers with “quality seed provisions, levelling land, timely water irrigation, soil and water testing, and fertilizer use motivation.”
“It’s not a big investment and you don’t need a huge budget to introduce farmer-friendly policies, but the returns would be phenomenal,” Khan said.
As the war against GM seeds, crops and food rages across the globe, in a quiet corner of University of Karachi, scientists are trying to determine the exact changes that have occurred in GM crops and the effects of such changes before completely abandoning the technology.
The lab is in the Jamil-ur-Rahman Center for Genome Research, where scientists are studying biosaline agriculture to see whether they can use salt water to grow edible crops that have undergone appropriate genetic modifications.
“If we could incorporate those genes into wheat or maize or rice, then we could use sea water for irrigation,” said Dr. Rahman,who established the genome center and named it for his father.
Unless science comes to the rescue, he sees a future in which human suffering increases as the effects of global warming grow more pronounced.
“The future of our planet is connected to water and agriculture,” he emphasized, adding, “GM crops can be of huge benefit, but we must proceed with caution.”
Courtesy Mint Press