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‘Agriculture to shrivel, if Pakistan remains tech-shy’

Business

August 12, 2020

LAHORE: Pakistan will have to take advantage of the modern technology to make the most of its agriculture sector, which equally requires its regulatory frameworks to catch up with these upgrades so they can be exploited efficiently.

It was stated by Dr Imran Ahmad Khan, CEO & Managing Director, Bayer Pakistan (Pvt) Limited, in an exclusive talk with The News.

Here are some of his thought-provoking insights on Pakistan’s healthcare and food security risks.

Q: Why is Bayer called a life science company?

A: At Bayer, we address some of the world's most pressing challenges. Our population is constantly growing, while climate change and resource scarcity pose a serious risk to food security. People need quality medicines and nutritious food in sufficient quantities to live a better life. Through our portfolio of science-based solutions for healthcare and agriculture, we work towards addressing these universal challenges and making our vision – Health for All, Hunger for None – a reality.

Q: What food and health security challenges are facing Pakistan currently?

A: There are tremendous challenges in both areas. Pakistan’s population, world’s sixth-largest, is projected to expand by nearly 100 million people by 2050 (UN World Population Prospects 2019). We need to feed more people than ever before in our history; even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 21 million Pakistanis were facing acute food insecurity. But simultaneously, we are facing extreme climate change-related challenges, scarcity of resources including water, and productivity losses. These factors affect the productivity of major crops such as wheat, rice and maize.

The young population of Pakistan is growing exponentially, and needs more in terms of both adequate nutrition and healthcare. Food insecurity puts people at great risk of malnutrition, which can lead to lifelong health conditions.

Q: What does Bayer offer to counter the prevailing challenges in healthcare and food security?

A: Bayer’s portfolio is uniquely structured to offer solutions for both healthcare and nutrition. In healthcare, we provide high-quality pharmaceuticals for many therapeutic categories – in Pakistan these include cardiology/thrombosis, women’s healthcare, pulmonology, oncology, anti-infectives, ophthalmology, and radiology. We also have a Consumer Health portfolio that includes nutritional, dermatology, and digestive health products. For the agriculture sector, our Crop Science product portfolio focuses on high-yielding seeds for maize as well as a portfolio of vegetable seeds. We also offer innovative crop protection solutions, including herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, and micronutrient products.

Q: What is the role of research-based drugs in healthcare security?

A: The field of medicine is constantly advancing; as diseases continue to evolve, so must available treatments. Research-based drugs offer patients the newest and most effective therapies to combat existing conditions. They are vital to raising the bar on prevailing standards of treatment, and therefore very important to healthcare security overall.

Q: How can Pakistan leverage agritech to combat food security challenges?

A: Agritech can be leveraged to combat many of the growing challenges to food security and improve the sustainability of the agriculture industry. Farmers can better utilize limited amounts of arable land and grow more with less by planting high-yielding crops made possible through advanced breeding techniques. A good example of this is short stature corn, a variety of corn that is resilient to challenging weather conditions, and also allows for greater planting density. If enabled by policy and regulatory frameworks, farmers can also utilise digital insights and precision agriculture for improved agronomy and efficient water usage. For example, harvest losses can be decreased if farmers have access to information about rapidly changing climate conditions, and are empowered to make timely decisions to protect their crops.

Q: How does Pakistan’s regulatory structure affect introduction of research based, innovative products, and technologies?

A: For innovation to flourish, the prevailing regulatory framework needs to provide adequate protection and support, particularly in the area of intellectual property (IP) protection. This is equally applicable to the pharmaceutical and agriculture sectors.

Technological advancement is underpinned by years of scientific research and investment. Therefore, companies seek out markets that provide adequate protection against theft of their proprietary knowledge. However, in Pakistan, despite the existence of requisite laws against intellectual property infringement, enforcement remains weak.

In agriculture, this is evident in the fact that despite being the fourth-largest market for cottonseed, none of the leading cottonseed technology (Bt cotton) providers are willing to enter the market. In the pharmaceutical sector, intellectual property violations have resulted in the widespread production, and distribution of counterfeit and sub-standard drugs.

Q: In terms of regulatory environment, what other improvements can contribute to create a competitive and growing pharmaceutical industry?

A: Contract manufacturing could enable the transfer of technology, expand the local industry, and boost exports. However we need more supportive policies for this to happen. Currently, to fulfill the requirements for contract manufacturing, companies must have a functional manufacturing facility of their own (unlike other countries, such as India). This requirement means that Pakistan will lag in pharmaceutical exports, with local plants remaining underutilised. There are concerns that contract manufacturing would discourage MNCs (multinational companies) from operating in Pakistan. However, the reality is that, due to the strict quality standards of MNCs, contract manufacturing would promote technology transfer by bringing the local industry at par with global technology, processes and quality controls. There is an urgent need to revisit the laws and regulations pertaining to contract manufacturing in order to unlock the potential of the pharmaceutical industry.

Q: What has the impact of COVID on healthcare and agriculture been?

A: As with all industries, the impact of COVID on both has been significant. The government-mandated lockdown at the peak of the pandemic along with travel restrictions, both local and global, put pressure on supply chains. In the agriculture supply chain, the movement of key inputs such as seed, fertilisers and crop protection products was impacted. Similarly, restrictions on movement of people also created a shortage of labour at critical planting and harvest stages across the country. However, the federal and provincial governments were quick to issue necessary exemptions for the relief of farmers. But, with the pandemic drawing out longer, demand compression experienced by certain food commodities is now beginning to drive down agriculture commodity prices; essentially eroding farmer profitability.

In the pharmaceutical industry, similar disruption was faced by many in the procurement of key raw materials such as API (Active Product Ingredient) which is not manufactured in the country and must be imported, often from India or China. Local movement restrictions also affected supply to distributors and retailers.

Q: What agri technologies does Bayer plan to introduce into Pakistan and where does the country stand in terms of adoption of modern technology?

A: Globally, Bayer has multiple technology platforms that provide tailored solutions to farmers, including advanced breeding technology, biotechnology, crop protection chemistries and digital/precision farming tools. In Pakistan, Bayer is already marketing elite maize hybrid seed genetics, and a crop protection portfolio enabling improved pest and weed control. Regarding our pipeline, we have completed all field trial and regulatory requirements for our biotech maize hybrids, which allow protection against insect attack and improved weed control. These hybrids have been shown to exhibit 10–45 percent higher yields than conventional varieties, and could save farmers up to 70 percent on crop protection costs. Bayer has also partnered with XAG, a leading drone manufacturer, in efforts towards introducing agriculture drone technology in the country. Drones allow more precise, efficient and safe application of pesticides, enable direct seeding in select crops and provide valuable data insights to aid key farming decisions. Unfortunately, Pakistan has been unable to fully capitalise on the modern technologies that are fueling growth in agriculture productivity globally. Drone technology is a prime example; while the world is fast embracing this innovative tool, our local regulatory frameworks have not evolved sufficiently to utilise it. In order to realise our true potential in agriculture, we need to embrace and adopt a wide array of modern technologies available to farmers around the world.