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National

June 10, 2011

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Top man quits over bid to seek clandestine nod for GM corn seed

LAHORE: The attempt of getting clandestine approval of genetically modified (GM) seeds in violation of the procedure invited fierce resistance from various quarters, forcing head of the official committee to tender his resignation on Thursday.
According to sources in the federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture, all discussions, meetings and proceedings for introducing the genetically modified seeds of corn/maize, which is also a food crop, on mass level are going on between the government and representative of influential seed companies secretively. Sources claimed that other stakeholders such as farmers’ representative bodies, consumer, independent agriculture experts and environmentalists have not been taken into confidence at any level whatsoever.
“It’s a deliberate attempt to keep these discussions and proceedings in low profile in order to avoid any outcry by the farmers and conscious citizens,” sources claimed. They added that instead of holding scientific debate on this important issue, involving large-scale cultivation of genetically modified corn, which could potentially pose serious threat to local varieties due to cross pollination besides other risks associated with the genetically modified organisms.
“Besides holding pragmatic scientific debate, there should be extensive public debate on this important issue as it deals with what we eventually eat,” said various stakeholders. It also assumes immense importance because many countries, including India, Australia, UK and other several European countries, have not allowed cultivation of the genetically modified corn, despite successive attempts made by multinational companies in recent years. In India, certain states even did not allow trial of the genetically modified corn in its territory.
Events related to a high-profile committee, established by the Ministry of Environment for commercialisation of the genetically modified corn in Pakistan took an ugly turn when it was

discovered that large-scale trials of genetically modified corn/maize have been conducted. Not only this, an attempt was also made to adopt the so-called findings of these trials, which was allegedly prepared by a multinational seed company itself.
Sources said 16-page report titled “TAC Sub-Committee Recommendations and Findings”, a copy of which is available with The News, was prepared by the Monsanto Pakistan, and certain members of the committee tried to adopt it, instead of evaluating the findings themselves.
Sources said Dr Zafar Khalid, director, National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE), who is also co-chair/member of the sub-committee, openly resisted intervention by Monsanto and objected credentials of its reports. Sources said he strongly conveyed that any such move would not be allowed to succeed, as it is in clear violation of the laid down procedure and had been done without adhering to full regulatory details, environmental concerns and due diligence.
Sources said that the Dr. Iftikhar Ahmad-led sub-committee first announced holding meeting of the committee to review a proposal regarding commercialisation of the genetically modified corn, but later cancelled it abruptly. Instead, an email was sent to the committee members with an attached file of Monsanto-engineering report, asking them to submit comments if any in a week.
Sources said Dr Zafar Khalid and others expressed serious reservations about cancellation of meeting and attempts to adopt findings of Monsanto. They asserted that it is responsibility of committee to itself review progress on trials of GM corn instead of vetting external findings.
Keeping in view this situation, sources said, Dr. Iftikhar Ahmad who is also Director General National Agriculture Research Council (NARC) tendered his resignation on Thursday morning.
According to his resignation note, copy of which is available with The News, he said TAC Sub-committee has been scandalized and an environment of prejudice has been created against the Committee. It is, therefore, not possible for him to carryout the work under the circumstances. Interestingly, he also proposed to reconstitute the committee.
Again there’s a misstatement in the Technical Assistance committee’s summary drafted by Monsanto for Dr. Iftikhar, sources alleged. Towards the end, the summary very cleverly states that Large Scale Field Trials were held in Autumn 2010. That’s factually wrong, sources claimed. Only regulatory trials were held and large scale trials approval was never given by National Bio-safety Committee/Ministry of Environment. “Two years mandatory regulatory trials are required before large scale trials of GM maize/corn can be conducted,” sources said. So the company has very cleverly drafted this report and tried to hoodwink the government body.
Farmer bodies and environmentalists across the world especially in Pakistan have been raising alarm bells on the news of possible formal introduction of genetically modified seeds in Pakistan.
They said it could have been in our best interest if we had taken all the stakeholders in confidence to review all the pros and cons of formally introducing the GM seeds in Pakistan and formulate a strategy to safeguard the interest of farmers and not of multinational companies.
Ibrahim Mughal, Chairman Agri-Forum Pakistan, claimed biotech seed companies in Pakistan are continuously misleading the decision makers and farmers by claiming yield increase through Bt corn/maize in Pakistan. Further, Philippines example is being quoted which is in fact not very relevant to Pakistan due to sea change in weather pattern.
Please note that in Pakistan, Temperate climatic condition prevails and the temperature rises above 40C and also can be less than 10 c during maize growing seasons. In tropical areas like Philippines, temperature is around 30C most of the year,” he observed. “So we cannot compare yield of hybrid seed used in Tropical region with temperate regions,” he observed.
Mughal added such influential biotech firms have developed special liaison with officials and found ways for getting approval of GM seeds, ignoring concerns of farmers and general public. He stressed the need to take appropriate measures for streamlining process of seed commercialization by including representatives of farmers.
About Monsanto’s forefront role in official approval process, Mughal said, “It seems the valid concerns expressed about the GM crops have been sidelined under pressure from the seed companies. We can evaluate ourselves how transparent, legal and ethically biotech/GM corps approval system is in Pakistan,” he observed.
Dr Tariq Bucha, Chief Coordinator Farmers Associates of Pakistan (FAP) also expressed concern on procedure being followed for granting approval to GM corn. He said new technologies should be first scientifically explored and given approval to only acclimatized varieties of seeds.
Bucha was of the view that we should avoid such situation where Pakistani farmers would be completely left on the mercy of few multinationals for their seed requirements and this complete dependency on profit-hungry multinationals would lead to a new era of decay for Pakistani agriculture sector and poor farmers.
Dr Fauzia Tahir, President Pakistan Bio-Safety and Bio-Security Association (PBBSA) said standard procedure should be followed for exploring efficacy of GM crops. She added that open scientific and public debate should also be held on important topic of GM food crops as it has potential to directly affect every person. She agreed that precautionary measures for avoiding unwarranted cross pollination should be properly devised and strictly implemented if at all approval is granted to GM seeds. First do a proper risk-assessment of GM corn, she stressed.
When contacted, Dr Iftikhar Ahmad said it was not fair to criticize process of GM corn commercialization before its completion. He said how anyone claims that we are not adhering to full regulatory details as process is still continuing. He declined to comment further.
Dr Aslam Gill, senior official of Minfa, said he would not support any such move, if any. He was of the opinion that physical inspection of crop is a must to review various parameters. He underlined the need to properly follow laid down procedure for regularization of GM food crops in the country.
When contacted, Aamir M Mirza, Country Head Monsanto Pakistan did not respond to specific queries about his company’s attempt to get approval of GM corn despite successive attempts. He finally said that he could be able to respond to queries, including about report of company containing findings of GM corn, not before next week.

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