There is immense pressure on developing countries to adopt genetically modified (GM) crops in the shortest possible time to supposedly ensure food security and boost agricultural productivity. Being a signatory to the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights, however, Pakistan is obliged to protect intellectual property rights (IPRs) of multinational organisations introducing GM plant varieties into the country. Multinational giants like Monsanto have been in a tussle with the Punjab government over payment mechanisms for infringement of these IPRs before it expands it GM seed business.
While Bt cotton, introduced in Pakistan in 2010, is surrounded by its own controversies, the prospect of producing GM corn in the country brings about additional concerns. Health concerns regarding GM food crops are not without substance. Even the European Union remains extremely reluctant to allow genetically modified organisms in agriculture. Yet, earlier this year, the Pakistan’s National Biosafety Committee (NBC) issued a press release announcing that its Technical Advisory Committee had approved a field trial for a Bt variety of Monsanto’s GM corn. The legitimacy of the NBC itself has been questioned given that the agency lacks sufficient funds and infrastructure to conduct independent research, relying on results produced by other laboratories such as the National Institute for Biology and Genetic Engineering, which is alleged to have a vested interest in GM commercialisation in the country.
The National Agricultural Research Centre (NARC) also claims that Pakistan can increase corn production by adopting GM technology and that transgenes that have been commercialised in corn so far are protective (insect resistant, herbicide tolerant, etc.) rather than productive. These qualities are meant to help significantly reduce the economic and environmental cost of pesticide use, as well as make the process of corn crop production less labour intensive.
However, the fact that GM corn should require less labour is hardly relevant for daily wage earners which comprise a major chunk of our rural labour force. Moreover, sceptics refute the claim that pesticide usage is actually lower due to GM crops. Findings of a latest Washington State University report also indicate that the use of GM crops is causing development of super-weeds and super-bugs which are resistance to GM innovations and pose a new environmental threat.
There are also problems with the cost lowering argument since special herbicides like Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’ are meant to be used on GM crops, which are more expensive than other available pesticides. Another study, published in the Journal of Environmental and Analytical Toxicology, reveals that glyphosate, the main ingredient of the herbicide Roundup, causes serious birth defects in lab animals. What this chemical does to humans and other animals remains a major issue of contention.
Despite these varied concerns, media reports last month highlighted how the Pakistani ‘farming community’, represented by ‘progressive’ farmers (read: large landowners), during a meeting with Monsanto representatives, had urged the government to approve GM corn for commercial plantation in Pakistan. These demands, however, illustrate the convergence of interest between multinational companies and capital intensive large farmers, which remain oblivious to not only emerging health and environmental concerns but also to the constraints of poor and landless farmers, who comprise a bulk of the rural populace in countries like our own.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 17th, 2012.