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Reviving Pakistan’s seed industry

Modernisation of the seed industry is an urgent need

September 24, 2023


ir William Roberts was the principal of the Punjab Agriculture College and Research Institute, Lyallpur, (now the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad) during 1917-1925. About 100 years ago, he wrote a white paper on the seed crisis of two major crops in the Punjab, i.e., cotton and wheat. The then government provided land grants (leases) to Sir Roberts at Peerowal/ Khanewal to start wheat and cotton seed production. He left his college job and established the Roberts Seed Association and Roberts Ginning Mills. The business bloomed, and the Nawab of Bahawalpur provided another land grant to him in Rahim Yar Khan. At one time, there were 13 ginning factories owned by the Roberts family who led the seed business in the region.

Sir William created a foundation where earnings were placed into a scholarship fund for master’s and PhD candidates at Lyallpur/ Faisalabad and Bangor, Wales-UK (his school). I was one of the fortunate recipients of the Sir William Roberts Scholarship for a master’s degree at Lyallpur and then for a PhD at the University of Wales, which I surrendered in favour of an opportunity at the University of California, Riverside-USA. The Peerowal estate went down in the 1970s when the lease expired. The pattern was repeated in Rahim Yar Khan. The foundation, the seed industry and the scholarships were all doomed.

The Peerowal estate was handed over to a newly created entity, the Punjab Seed Corporation. In due course of time, powerful elite usurped the Rahim Yar Khan estate. The PSC had a good start in the late 1970s when the cotton revolution began due to the introduction of new heat-tolerant cotton varieties (NIAB-78, S-12). That was when the Seed Act of 1976 was promulgated, and the PSC became the primary provider of certified seeds. Within a decade, cotton production increased from 3 million to 12 million bales a year. As a result, the textile sector expanded. So did the country’s economy.

Most of the PSC land operations were with sharecroppers (mazar’een), who had originally worked for the Roberts Seed Association. As is the case with all state owned enterprises across the country, the PSC lost control of most of the land operations, following the protests by the mazar’een. Today, the PSC is a non-significant player in the seed business.

The seed crisis in Pakistan has deepened while the seed revolution worldwide has transformed agriculture. We had our share of success during the early days of the Green Revolution with the introduction of Maxi-Pak wheat seed, the short stature and input-responsive varieties. That was followed by the cotton transformation during the 1980s. The growth in maize production during the past two decades has been nearly tenfold (due to the introduction of hybrid seeds). Finally, rice yields have quadrupled due to better seeds. However, the content of the white paper written by Sir William Roberts 100 years ago is still valid for wheat and cotton. The wheat yields are stagnant. We have seen repeat failures of cotton crops, primarily due to the lack of quality seed.

The Biosafety Law of 2005 to regulate GM crops, the Seed Act amendments of 2015 and the Plant Breeder Rights (PBR) Act of 2016 failed to ensure replacement of wheat and cotton seeds. Official figures suggest that 39 percent of the seed in the market is certified. That includes a large component of hybrid seed supplied by multinational companies.

The Peerowal estate went down in the 1970s when the lease expired. The same pattern was repeated in Rahim Yar Khan.

Wheat, our principal staple, has the largest sown area under a single crop (~22 million acres). Our structured surveys in central Punjab showed that seed replacement at the farmer’s end takes a decade. However, the government claims that more than 0.5 million tonnes of certified wheat seed are available, which should be enough to replace 50 percent of the total seed used. I doubt this figure and ask for a ground-truthing survey in November.

The times have changed since the Green Revolution and the cotton bonanza of the 1980s when government departments and the PSC were major players. Today, the only success stories are where the private sector is given space. The Roberts Farms were also a private-sector organisation. The time is ripe for the seed sector to be liberalised and a public-private partnership model to be allowed. The government breeders and universities should focus on germplasm development. The variety of development and marketing should be left to the private sector.

The three federal laws are toothless in the wake of the 18th Amendment and due to a lack of capacity to enforce. At best, they are prohibitive if and when attracted. The Seed Act has two principal functions: registering new germplasm as distinct, uniform and stable and approving/ certifying value for cultivation and use varieties/ cultivars. The first function is universal and should be retained; the second is a mess. It should be left to the private sector. The biggest impediment is a government-controlled Technical Committee of the Provincial Seed Council, a relic from the 1970s when there were no private players.

The PBR Act is meant to promote seed sector investment and provide intellectual property rights. Again, there is a case for facilitating the private sector to enter the seed business. The Biosafety Law is an essential regulator of GM crops. It has consistently failed to regulate (for example, Bt cotton) and often been a hurdle (for example, maize and soybean). The laws are in the domain of different ministries, which is highly impractical (Seed Act-Ministry of National Food Security and Research; Biosafety Act-Ministry of Climate Change).

The private sector is also not without its vices. About 900 registered seed companies can hardly be considered custodians of ‘seeds’ the way Roberts had meant. The counterfeit seed supply is largely attributed to the mushroom growth in the number of seed companies. About five MNCs are doing a far superior job. That, too, is not ideal because the MNCs are only selling seeds produced in other countries.

Under the auspices of the Ministry of Science and Technology/ PSQCA, we have launched a Rs 4.4 billion Public Sector Development Programme project to promote the private sector-led quality seed industry. The scheme is to comply with the seed laws up to DUS, followed by marketing under the truth-in-labelling category, a voluntary branding system meeting international standards. The standards are set by ISTA (International Seed Testing Association) for genetic purity, being free from diseases and extraneous mixes and viability (95-99 percent germination). The MNCs are following the ISTA standards for marketing seed brands. We have to invest in training and capacity building of local companies to follow ISTA standards.

The PSDP project shall have an ISTA laboratory at Faisalabad with two outreach centres, one each at Quetta and Narowal. The training and capacity-building work shall be carried out in all four provinces in collaboration with the agriculture universities. Armed with the current science and business practices, we are determined to revive the spirit of the Seeds white paper written by Sir William Roberts 100 years ago.

The writer is the vice-chancellor of the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad