Introduction of new technologies has always been resisted in any field by the people who are the beneficiaries of the status-quo and those afraid of any new technology. Same thing is happening to agriculture in Pakistan and there is heated debate in the country on the introduction of genetically-modified or biotech crops, although data shows it is the most rapidly adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture.
Introduced first in 1996, today genetically-modified or biotech crops are being grown by millions of farmers across the globe – from the United States to Philippines. According to the latest report of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), which has been tracking global biotech crop adoption trends since the inception of biotechnology in 1996, the global adoption of biotech crops continued to rise in 2012 with new countries realising the benefits. Hectarage of biotech crops increased every single year between 1996-2012 with double-digit growth rates, reflecting the confidence and trust of millions of risk-averse farmers around the world in both developing and industrial countries.At a time when the world is turning to science and technology, particularly biotechnology, to meet much-needed challenges in agriculture, Pakistan seems to be lacking a national strategy and plan of action to fully use this revolutionary science.
While there is a disinformation and misinformation campaign because of lack of understanding of agri-sciences, the voices of the experts, who know what agricultural biotechnology exactly is, are being ignored. Biotech crops are not new to Pakistan. Pakistan has already embraced crop biotechnology by commercialising Bt cotton (although through informal channel). According to the ISAAA, Pakistan is among the 10 countries which grew biotech crops on more than one million hectares in 2012. Now, Pakistan is in the process of approving GM corn, whose field trials have been completed as per government rules and regulations for commercial cultivation.
Before clarifying myths that are propagated by anti-science and low-quality seed companies, we must know that what exactly biotechnology is and how it works. Have you ever wondered where our crops come from and what were they like thousands of years ago, or hundreds of years ago? The truth is that our food crops today are in fact very different from the original wild plants from which they were derived. The fact is that crop biotechnology is just an evolution of traditional agricultural methods and merely an extension of traditional breeding.
Almost all GM crops are based on two well-established and rigorously tested technologies. First, Bt crops produce a bacterial protein known as Bacillus thuringiensis. It’s naturally occurring—and it’s widely used by organic farmers to selectively kill pest insects. Genetically engineered Bt crops simply produce their own Bt. The effects are identical to what happens on organic farms—which is what makes protests against genetically-engineered Bt crops seem so bizarre to scientists. The net result is that Bt crops increase yields because farmers lose fewer crops to insect pests.
The other major GM crops are those designed to be herbicide-tolerant, most commonly glyphosate, and better known as Roundup. Glyphosate is biodegradable and breaks down rapidly in the environment. Because the weed killer is more powerful and less toxic than the chemicals that it competed with, farmers quickly adopted glyphosate.
In case of GM corn, plants have been genetically modified to have agronomic desirable traits. Traits that have been engineered into corn include resistance to insect pests and herbicide tolerance. It means that GM corn makes a protein that kills specific insect pests without the use of insecticides. Besides, it can also reduce the losses caused by weeds. In a nutshell, GM corn is just an improved version of traditional corn and can be the solution to the major problems (insect pests and weeds) our corn farmers are facing today. The GM corn has the capability of significantly reducing the losses caused by certain chewing insect pests and weeds which in turn results in higher production. This transgenic maize provides in-plant protection with dual modes of action to protect against certain above-ground pests that plague Pakistani farmers including the corn Stem borer, (Chilo partellus), American Bollworm (Helicoverpa Armigera), army worm (Spodoptera Litura) and beet armyworm (Spodoptera Exigua). It also provides the corn plant with tolerance to glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup(r) brand agricultural herbicides, opening up new possibilities for weed control for Pakistani farmers. This technology is also environment friendly because use of pesticides will decrease considerably.
Therefore, the scientific truth is that biotechnology is just a refinement of breeding techniques that have been used to improve plants for thousands of years. This technology is simply a more precise science, so scientists are able to isolate a specific gene to make exact changes to a crop. Scientists around the world agree that the risks associated with crop plants developed using biotechnology are the same as those for similar varieties developed using traditional breeding methods.