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Farmers fear fallout from GM trials

Negative externality: Farmers fear fallout as Bt corn trial allowed
Zafar Bhutta
The Express Tribune (Pakistan), March 10 2012

“BT corn can be successful on large land holdings elsewhere, but it will adversely affect the smaller land holdings in Pakistan,” an official said.
Sources have told The Express Tribune that the Technical Advisory Committee of the National Bio-Safety Committee (NBC) has okayed biotech giant Monsanto for a field trial of its Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT) corn, but small farmers’ crops adjacent to the experiment site may be at risk from the highly-pollinating variety of genetically modified (GM) maize.

Earlier, Monsanto had demanded some public guarantee for the use of its technology by farmers who usually save seeds for the following season. Critics of the policy have now demanded that the company be forced to pay compensation to those farmers whose corn may be affected following the commercialisation of BT corn.

A senior government official has said that the corn is a highly-pollinating variety whose pollen can travel up to 500 metres.

“This means that any non-GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crop in the radius of 500 meters of the experiment field is more likely to be pollinated by GMO pollens; therefore, farmers will not be able to sell the produce of such fields as non-GMO grains,” official said.

“BT corn can be successful on large land holdings elsewhere, but it will adversely affect the smaller land holdings in Pakistan,” he said.

“Those farmers who do not endorse genetically modified crops may not survive, and their crops may be contaminated with GMO pollen. Such farmers cannot save their seeds for the following season as BT corn design inhibits seed germination,” he said. Such farmers may also ultimately face law suits for ‘stealing’ the technology, he added.

More than two-third farmers in Pakistan save their own seed for coming year’s crop.

“The NBC should work out a mechanism to compel the company to compensate farmers whose corn they will contaminate,” the official said. He added that there are even questions like pollen from BT crops contaminating honey produced in those areas. He said that if the company wanted a public guarantee for cotton, it should be bound to give guarantees to poor corn farmers before allowing the commercialisation of GMO corn in the country.

The first GM crop planted by Monsanto in Pakistan was cotton, in 2010. Since then, the company is trying to sell other products, at substantially higher prices, to the cotton growers of Pakistan. The issue has come under debate, but the official was quick to point out that the issue of GM corn is quite different than cotton. It requires extra precautionary measures since it is consumed by humans, poultry and animals in raw or processed form.

Interestingly, the NBC, the agency that regulates GMO in the country, lacks a sound infrastructure base. It relies on the results produced by other laboratories; mostly to institutes like the National Institute for Biology and Genetic Engineering. Such entities are usually the same candidates who seek permission for GMO experiments or commercialisation in the country. The candidate company thus clears its GMO, and the NBC stamps its approval onto it.

“These laboratories are most likely to be influenced by manipulation of data by the private sector,” the official said. He added that, for filing for approval of a GMO, candidates are not required to submit an environmental impact assessment. Neither does the NBC have any standards in this regard, he said.

For human and animal studies, NBC’s requirements are satisfied by data produced in other countries. “Agricultural and environmental research is something which always requires local testing to validate domestic performance,” the officials points out.

A senior official of National Agricultural Research Council (NARC) said that “yes, we have no independent research facilities, but our team is collaborating with Monsanto and Pioneer Companies to investigate health hazards for humans and animals.” He said that these companies had invested billion of rupees and set up research laboratories, whereas the government had not released funds to NARC for the past seven months. He said that the department was working to complete research before the commercialisation of BT corn in Pakistan.