First GM food crop okayed with new sugarcane varieties

TAC granted its approval under the chairpersonship of Dr. Farzana Altaf Shah, Director General of EPA, at its 34th meeting

By Munawar Hasan
June 15, 2024
A farmer works in his sugarcane field on the outskirts of Ahmedabad February 28, 2015. — Reuters

LAHORE: Pakistan has greenlighted commercial farming of its first genetically modified (GM) food crop, approving two varieties of sugarcane developed by the University of Agriculture, Faisalabad (UAF).

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The Technical Advisory Committee (TAC), established under the federal Environment Protection Agency (EPA), consented to the commercialisation of two high-yielding GM sugarcane varieties: CABB-IRS, an insect-resistant transgenic sugarcane seed, and CABB-HTS, a herbicide-tolerant transgenic sugarcane variety. These varieties were developed by Dr. Muhammad Sarwar Khan, Pro-Vice Chancellor, UAF.

The TAC granted its approval under the chairpersonship of Dr. Farzana Altaf Shah, Director General of the EPA, at its 34th meeting.

The GM sugarcane will be the first food crop in the country permitted for large-scale cultivation. Previously, GM crops in Pakistan, such as Bt cotton, were used only for oil extraction and animal feed.

In a report on July 14, 2019, The News had highlighted a previous attempt to get a GM food crop approved, which was halted due to contamination fears. The federal government opted to freeze GM corn trials and imposed a ban on further trials of GM maize to avoid natural crop contamination that could harm maize exports. A notification issued by the Environmental Protection Agency of the Ministry of Climate Change, titled “Suspension of GM Corn/Maize Activities in the Country,” detailed the decision taken at a National Biosafety Committee (NBC) meeting.

The Punjab Seed Corporation had conveyed this decision through a directive on July 9, 2019, suspending all biosafety licenses for the import and field trials of GM corn, along with all related activities. This halted the trials of bio-engineered maize in the country.

The newly approved GM sugarcane variety has resistance to pest attacks due to the insertion of a non-plant toxic gene. Cry proteins from Bacillus thuringiensis are used to control lepidopteran insect pests. The second GM variety can tolerate non-selective herbicides such as Glyphosate and Glufosinate, allowing for effective weed control. Speaking to The News, Prof. Dr. Iqrar Ahmad Khan, VC, UAF, refrained from giving any quantifiable assessment of the output of the new GM sugarcane varieties.

“The yield estimates come from field trials now in place for the first time at several locations in Punjab and Sindh. One thing is proven: due to insect resistance, there will be no insecticide application cost, and due to weedicide use, there will be input efficiency,” he noted. The university had claimed last year that the sugarcane varieties CABB-IRS and CABB-HTS offer economic benefits by reducing the need for granular pesticides to control borers, which can cost Rs3,500-4,000 per acre. These engineered sugarcane varieties have the potential to minimise losses caused by weeds and insects, with weeds accounting for up to 25% and insects for up to 40% of the reduction in yield. It is hoped that these new varieties will significantly increase sugarcane yield per acre.

Commenting on the development, Ejaz Rao, a foreign-qualified progressive farmer, expressed his concern over what he called the clandestine process of approving GM food crops. He stressed that such a development impacts every citizen and should be open and transparent. Rao noted that GM food crops are grown in a limited number of countries. “Our neighbour India, the European Union, Turkey, and the vast majority of other countries have imposed bans on GM crops. I wonder why we are keen to adopt such a controversial technology for seed development, which has been monopolised by multinationals,” he said.

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