Can use of biotechnology turn around Pakistan's economy?

Published: January 20, 2020
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A Reuters representational image.

A Reuters representational image.

KARACHI: Using science as a tool, productivity and proficiency in almost all professions have increased.

It is observed that many scientific findings proven at the laboratory scale and those reported in scientific journals are not practically applicable beyond the pilot scale with promising reproducibility and sustainability.

Pakistan is an agriculture country having a remarkable history of producing very high sustainable yield of crops by using unconventional methods of farming and supported by one of the largest irrigation systems in the world.

As a consequence of industrialisation, natural vegetation and naturally conserved crop fields have been removed to establish industrial zones across the country. Over time, different challenges such as shortage of water, climate change, pollution and salinity have emerged and most of them could not be addressed in time because of a lack of infrastructure, mismanagement, scarcity of trained manpower and scarcity of funds.

Resistant pests and resistant microbes causing plant disease are the key threats affecting the sustainable yield. Use of chemical fertilisers has disturbed the natural flora of soil, hence adversely affecting yield quality, organoleptic properties of the produce, its nutritional status and shelf life.

We have been emphasising to improve the yield of crops but have never taken into account the option to manage more effectively the food supply chain to minimise the loss and engage in appropriate waste management, particularly in case of industrial waste as it is the most detrimental to the agriculture sector.

In the old days, mostly domestically cooked food was consumed but in recent years, with the change in lifestyle, a considerable population of consumers relies on eateries, which have emerged as a newly evolved version of food supply chains, contributing a sizable chunk to the country’s economy.

A considerable portion of livestock and agricultural produce is consumed as raw material to fuel such eateries and the cottage industry producing food products.

The food industry including the large manufacturing units is the bulk purchaser of livestock and generates foreign exchange in parallel to other manufacturers consuming the agricultural produce to produce non-food items and contributing even larger amount to the economy.

The untreated waste of industries, dumped into streams, pollutes the soil and water banks, which is one of the main reasons for the low agricultural yield.

Agricultural yield used to be sufficient to meet the nation’s food requirement and some of the produce was exported as well. Over time, with ongoing industrialisation, variable versions of food supply chain have emerged, resulting in loss of balance between local demand and supply of livestock and agricultural produce. As a consequence, the common man now has to pay high prices for food.

Use of biotechnology

Biotechnology refers to different techniques through which DNA/proteins or their manufacturing units within cells are transferred from one type of cells to other type of cells to achieve different characteristics.

DNA/protein – for long shelf life, improved organoleptic properties, protection from pest and plant diseases – can transfer from Halal animal, Haram animal or micro-organisms or the blend of all to recipient cells.

Same stays true for achieving objectives like producing more flesh, better milking and improved strength whereas in plants biotechnological tailouring is done to get crops with desirable characteristics. This includes production of new varieties of the produce with better resistance to crop diseases and pests and improved yield with desirable quality.

Such plants are called genetically modified (GM) crops and such animals are referred to as GM animals. The use of biotechnology is meant to enjoy the blessings of nature provided safety measures are taken while producing or using biotechnologically derived products.

There is a very high risk associated with the use of biotechnologically tailoured products in food and agriculture as they may not produce the expected consistent quality, results or yield every time and may end up with certain unexpected characteristics.

However, each brand-driven food supply chain is well defined and requires specific raw material and ingredients to sustain the needed production of a given food commodity having defined quality and safety.

It is risky to sustain at the same minimal cost and profit margin if eateries and industries rely on biotechnologically derived raw material or ingredients.

Recommendations

By using the latest scientific knowledge, it seems more promising to use modern organic practices in farming while utilising most of the available agricultural land. To develop balance between supply and demand, it is important to integrate, regulate and document different versions of the food supply chains existing across the country – an important initiative to minimise the cost and losses in the agriculture and food industry.

With effective industrial waste management, Pakistan can enhance its agricultural and livestock yields manifold.

The writer is the assistant professor at the Department of Food Science and Technology, University of Karachi

 

Published in The Express Tribune, January 20th, 2020.

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