---MNCs vying to monopolise Pakistan's agriculture, food
Pak Tribune, June 30 2008http://www.paktribune.com/news/index.shtml?202545
KARACHI: Pakistan is set to ink an agreement with the US multinational company Monsanto before the advent of the next cotton season to introduce Bioinsecticide Cotton (Bt Cotton) in the country.
This move, critics fear, could ultimately pave the way for the monopolisation of the seed business in Pakistan. "For the time being, Pakistan has signed a Letter of Intent (LoI) with Monsanto but we hope to sign an agreement with the company before the beginning of the next cotton season," Abdul Qadir Baloch, Federal Crop Commissioner, told media.
He rejected the notion that the agreement would lead to the monopolisation of the seed business, and ultimately, of food and agriculture in Pakistan. "Cotton leaf curl virus is a big problem for this country. Previously, it was called Multan curl virus, then it was termed Burewala curl virus. We have been trying to contain it since 2000. By the time we sign an agreement with Monsanto, our research will be completed and the company will insert its virus resistant gene into our varieties," he said.
Many independent scientists beg to differ with Baloch and fear repercussions of the highest order once Bt Cotton is introduced in Pakistan officially. “Bt Cotton has been sown in India by a joint venture company comprising Monsanto and the results have been disastrous. Thousands of farmers had a very poor cotton crop and suffered losses,” said Dr Azra Talat Sayeed, a PhD in social pharmacy who works with Roots for Equity, a non-governmental organisation.
She argued that since Pakistan and India have similar climatic conditions, there was every chance that Pakistan would bear the same losses as India. She said Monsanto maintains that transgenic cotton or Bt Cotton does not require pesticide spraying on the crop but all evidence until now has shown that there was no reduction in pesticide spraying.
“This basically means that Monsanto will not only reap profits for its Bt Cotton but also on its pesticide which is the prescribed one for Bt Cotton, all at the cost of poor, small farmers of Pakistan,” she cautioned.
“The issue is not confined to Bt Cotton. It is of accepting transgenic seeds per se. Once we allow genetically modified seeds in the organism we are accepting Bt Rice and Bt Corn, all of which are potentially hazardous, genetically modified organisms. This will give agro-chemical crops total monopoly over our food and agriculture,” she said.
However, Monsanto Pakistan rejects these apprehensions. Amir M Mirza, spokesman for Monsanto Pakistan in a query from media, said: “Introduction of Bt Cotton through legal means will provide the Pakistani farmers access to technology which has been successfully commercialised in other major cotton-producing countries, where millions of farmers are benefiting from it. Other public and private technology providers, both foreign and indigenous, are free to introduce their technologies farmers will have the choice to decide on which technology they would like to use, their decision will of course be based on which technology gives them the maximum benefit.”
He also disputed that farmers have suffered after the introduction of Bt Cotton in India. “There have been numerous socio-economic studies done by credible third party agencies highlighting the tremendous value Bt Cotton has created for Indian farmers and society at large.” Elaborating, he said: “Five years from the introduction of Bt Cotton in India, the Bt cotton area has soared from slightly over hundred thousand acres to 15.3 million acres grown by approximately 4 million small and resource-poor farmers the yields have gone up by up to 50 per cent, insecticide sprays have reduced by half, and the farm income at the national level has increased up to $1.7 billion as compared to $840 million in 2006.”
Genetically-modified seeds have already been illegally sown in Hyderabad and Sanghar districts in Sindh and in different areas of Punjab through smuggled seeds from India but the outcome has not been encouraging.
Monsanto, having made inroads in India, one of the world’s largest cotton producers, has been trying to break into the Pakistan market to sell GM cotton seeds since 2002 despite the reservations of scientists and lack of bio-safety laws. In a country short of water, Monsanto has been making much of the fact that Bt Cotton needs less water than the staple food crop of rice.
Cotton is vital for Pakistan’s economy and poor farmers in the country live under an exploitative landholding system and more than 30 per cent of the population is condemned to live below the poverty line. Bad irrigation practices and droughts have made growing crops increasingly difficult and the country, which used to export grain, now has to import it.
Cotton harvesting is done between October and December. After this, ginning begins and the crop starts coming into the market by the middle of the year. Cotton accounts for 8.2 per cent of the value addition in agriculture and about two per cent of GDP. The Punjab grows more than 70 per cent of the crop alone.
Dr Abid Azhar, professor and co-director general, Dr AQ Khan Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, University of Karachi, said: “All multinational corporations have their commercial and economic interests and we have to strike a balance between their commercial interests and the interests of our economy and well-being of the community.”
Elaborating, he said: “It may be true that genetically modified varieties could have a better yield but their affects on human health could not be ignored. On the one hand, the economic interests of the farmers have to be protected, on the other, the health of the community at large should be safeguarded.”
He went on to add: “There have been several reports on the adverse effects of these varieties on human health in India and elsewhere,” he pointed out. But Aamir Mirza of Monsanto denied these conclusions and claimed that there were no adverse affects of GMOs on human health.
“Several scientific publications continue to document safety information about the genetically-enhanced crops,” he said. Whether Monsanto or the concerned academics and NGOs are right on this all-important question, the public will only know when it is too late. Our decision-makers have already decided to move ahead on this controversial plan.
NOTE: Pakistan'S Federal Crop Commissioner seems to be under the misapprehension that Monsanto's Bt cotton includes a gene that is resistant to the cotton leaf curl virus, which is a big problem in Pakistan. In fact, Bt cotton varieties have proven just as vulnerable to the virus - indeed, some argue that they are more vulnerable than local varieties that have resistance.