Punjab starts selling unapproved cotton seeds

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ISLAMABAD: The Punjab government has started selling genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds that have never been field tested in Pakistan and approved for commercialisation.

The move can have a negative impact on the crop production besides posing risks to the export of cotton products, especially to the western countries under the EU Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) Plus status granted to Pakistan. Under the bio-safety guidelines 2005, all GM organisms should be tested for at least two years before they are sold in the markets.

Last month, advertisements sponsored by the Punjab government started appearing in national Urdu newspapers for the sale of 23 Bt (or genetically modified) cotton seeds to farmers.

“The GM seed varieties have to be registered with the Federal Seed Certification and Registration Department under the Seed Act 1976 and Seed Rules 1987.

The department issues certification to private companies and government institutions for sale after it has verified the bio-safety data - impact on the environment and human health for two years,” said an expert in the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC).

Dr M. Ibrahim Mughal, the chairman of the Agro-Farm Pakistan, added: “Cotton makes up for $17 billion of the $25 billion agriculture industry. Nobody in the government and private sector realises that we are destroying the cotton industry.”

Documents available with Dawn showed that in April 2010 eight Bt cotton varieties and one hybrid variety was approved by the Punjab Seed Council for cultivation in the province.

Four of the varieties were approved on a provisional basis for one year for field performance/monitoring and all other Bt seeds and hybrid for three years.

This provisional exemption was given knowing that the quality of cotton fibre, especially (micronaire value and staple length), was lower than fibre quality standards with low Bt toxin levels to kill pests.

The private companies were to use these for 1-3 years to improve the crop quality. However, the companies never submitted their progress reports.

For unknown reasons, the technical advisory committee recommended on February 13, 2014, an extension in the commercialisation of the varieties approved in 2010 for three years, which had expired in 2013. Further provisional approval would be granted for two years.

“The seed companies failed to submit to the National Bio-Safety Committee local bio-safety and risk assessment data on the quality of seed and its impacts on the environment. The substandard seed is back on sale to the farmers in the market,” said the expert.

The exemption was, however, also a clear violation of the Bio-Safety Guidelines 2005 and the Seed Act 1976, said the scientist. According to other experts in PARC, GM seeds undergo distinctness, uniformity and stability or DUS test, imperative under the Seed Act 1976 and Seed Act 1986.

The test has to be done for at least two years in the field to check compatibility of the GM seed in a new environment.

However, the DUS data has never been provided for the genetically modified cotton seeds being sold to the farmers to date.

The Ministry of Commerce and Textile Industries in a letter to the prime minister on December 27, 2013, stated: “Matters pertaining to genetically modified organisms are to be discussed, resolved and monitored at the national level only, as mandated by the Cartegena Protocol, and cannot be devolved to the provinces in the interest of public safety and national security.”

In October 2012, the International Cotton Advisory Committee, US, in its country report on Pakistan’s cotton sector expressed concern that because of Bt cotton use in Pakistan minor pests like red bug, dusky bug etc., had become major pests of cotton.

The concern rose after new pests emerged due to GM cotton such as red bug and dusky bug.

The committee added: “Inefficient plant protection measures have resulted in excessive use of pesticides, increasing costs of production and environment pollution. In the recent past, widespread attack of mealy bug, red cotton and dusky cotton bug have caused substantial loss to the yield.

The population of other sucking insects, namely whitefly and jassid are also on the rise presumably due to cultivation of Bt cotton.

Managing Director Punjab Seed Corporation Khaqan Babar was unaware of the approval of substandard GM seeds.

Cotton Commissioner Ministry of Commerce and Textile Industries Dr Khalid Abdullah Malik said the low standard GM seed varieties were things of the past.

“New varieties have been added which have been approved by the federal government. These varieties have been tested worldwide and in 18 different locations in Punjab and Sindh and are compatible with the local environment, have been tested for pest resistance, and the fibre characteristics of the Bt cotton suit industry requirement,” he said.

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