The fate of new varieties of cotton, corn, wheat and sugarcane crops developed by both public and private sectors hangs in the balance; as the National Bio-safety Centre – an apex body with a mandate to test and approve new crop varieties – has been almost dysfunctional since August 2011.
Sources say the National Bio-safety Centre, tasked with approval and commercialising of genetically modified (GM) crops organisms, does not exist as a proper entity as the developmental project expired in August 2011.
“Since then, private and public research organisations – including multinationals which have invested billions of rupees in developing high-yielding GM crop varieties as per provisions of the National Biosafety Rules 2005 – await the restarting of the regulatory process,” a government official said.
The National Bio-safety Centre, established to provide the requisite set-up for implementation of bio-safety rules and guidelines, serves as the secretariat of the National Bio-safety Committee (NBC) and the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) – the main regulatory bodies responsible for testing and approving GM crops and organisms in the country. The NBC also authorises companies to import seeds in order to conduct field trials, and makes the final regulatory decisions after following a rigorous process laid down in the committee’s rules and regulations.
“The National Bio-safety Centre calls a meeting of the TAC and NBC on a need basis. The NBC has not held its meeting since February 2011, which has delayed the regulatory process required to test and approve GM crops,” the official said; adding that the TAC, which works under the umbrella of the NBC, is also not holding its meetings on a regular basis. Since April 2011, the committee held its last meeting in February 2012.
The official said that applications submitted by various public and private sectors organisations seeking approval of different GM crops were yet to be reviewed by both the NBC and TAC.
“This administrative controversy has also led to commercialisation of eight new BT cotton varieties in 2012 by different private and public sector organisations without clearance from the National Bio-safety Centre. This issue needs to be addressed by the government immediately, so that agriculture does not suffer and farmers get access to the best available technology in the form of GM crops,” the official added.
Prior to the devolution of powers to provinces under the 18th Amendment, the National Bio-safety Centre – whose executing agency is the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) – was working effectively under the Ministry of Environment. After devolution of the Ministry, the National Biosafety Centre went to the Ministry of Planning and Development, while Pak-EPA was transferred to the Capital Administration and Development Division. In November 2011, the NBC came under control of the National Ministry of Disaster Management; and most recently, in April 2012, it was transferred to the Ministry of Climate Change.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 12th, 2012.