Agricultural sector is still the largest sector of the Pakistan economy contributing 21.4% to the GDP and providing employment to 45.5 % of total employed labor force. Trends in agriculture growth reflect that agriculture grew at an average rate of 4.4 % per annum during the 1990s. During the 2000 decade rate of growth of the agricultural sector has been quite erratic, ranging between -2.7 percent to 6.5 percent. The pathetic performance is also on account of the fact that no investments were made in the agricultural sector that would increase crop yield. Water which is a crucial input is quite deficient and no investments have been made in water development projects, farm to market roads, power development projects, storage and warehousing facilities, etc.
The performance of the agriculture sector was stronger than expected during 2004-05 and 2005-06. But from 2006-07 onwards agricultural growth started declining. The decline continued till 2012-13, in spite of substantial increase in support prices of agricultural products in 2008 by the previous government. Major kharif crops are: rice, cotton, sugarcane, mung, mash, bajra. While the major rabi crops are wheat, gram, masoor and tobacco. Wheat, rice, sugarcane and cotton account for bulk of value added of major crops. Violent fluctuations in the production of these five major crops occurred during the period 2003-4 to 20012-13. A high rate of growth in one year was followed by a negative growth rate in the following year. And the same pattern was repeated in the following year. These fluctuating growth rates of major crops reflects the following: One, that Pakistan’s agriculture is totally at the mercy of the weather. Second, that the high support prices of agricultural crops announced in 2008 did nothing to boost agricultural growth. Third, poor management of the Pakistan economy.
Sugarcane is an important cash crop of Pakistan, used as an input in sugar and sugar-related products, chipboard and paper. We notice violent fluctuations in the area, production and yield of sugar cane during the period 2004-5 to 2012-13. Rice is an important food crop and one of the major export items of the country. Pakistan grows enough high quality rice to meet domestic demand and exports. It is produced mainly in the Sindh and Punjab. Wheat is the main staple food item and the largest grain crop of the country. Even this staple diet is not free from systemic fluctuations in area, production and yield during the period 2004-5 to 2012-13. That is why one year Pakistan exports wheat, but the following year it has to import wheat from abroad, reflecting mismanagement of the economy by the previous governments during the period 2004 to 20013. While the production of rape and mustard seeds, barely, tobacco and jowar decreased during the same period. Major oilseed crop includes cottonseed, rapeseed/mustard, sunflower, canola etc. Local production of edible oil stood at 612,000 tons in 2012-13 declining from 636,000 tons earlier. Production of minor crops which include masoor, mung, mash and onions declined during 2011-12 to 2012-13. The only minor crops that increased last year are potatoes and chillies. Decline in the production of mung, mash and masoor is worrying as lentils are mostly consumed by the poor, which together with wheat is the most commonly consumed food by the poor and lower middle classes.
As a result of declines in major food crops like wheat, lentils and vegetables Pakistan is becoming food insecure. The country has been importing these products from abroad. A recent survey of major food retailers in Karachi indicated that we are importing wheat from Russia, lentils from Australia, Canada and India and vegetables from India. The worrying thing is that with the exception of Russia, which exports wheat to Pakistan, Australia, Canada and India – countries exporting lentils and vegetables to Pakistan are GM producing areas.
Despite persisting concerns over GM crops, GM farming is taking off around the world. In 2012, GM crops grew on about 420 million acres of land in 28 countries worldwide, a record high according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications. Growth of GM farming area in the LDCs surpassed that in industrial nations for the first time in 2012. According to a recent UN Food and Agriculture Organisation forum if this upward trend continues “a considerable quantity and variety” of GM products may be commercialised in developing countries within the next five years
Even though it has increased the supply of agricultural products, this has been at a very high cost in terms of health, since diseases like cancer are spreading like an epidemic. GM food exporting rich countries export these to countries where consumers are mostly caught unaware of the hazards of GM foods. In their own countries they have strict laws governing the sale of these products to their consumers. In some countries the sale of GM foods is not allowed and governments wait for the impact of GM foods to manifest themselves in the LDCs, before they take a decision about the sale of GM foods to their own citizens.
Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have many other disadvantages as well. They reduce nutrient content in foods. They also increase allergic reactions, resulting in the production of harmful proteins. GMO foods increase cancer and cause Horizontal Gene Transfer between modified organisms and human bacteria. GMOs increase the dependence of LDCs on corporations and result in corporate monopolies on crops. Through increased fertilizer and herbicide use, they increase the cost of production of crops.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has pointed out some problems related with farming and consumption of GMOs for small farmers and consumers. These are on account of pest resistance, contamination of non-GMO crops, and potential toxicity of GM foods and products. According to the FAO (2011) 161 countries ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety, which “may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health, and specifically focusing on trans-boundary movements.”
As the FAO points out, GM technologies are mostly proprietary, developed by the private sector and released for commercial production through licensing agreements. Adoption of GM technologies has raised social and ethical concerns about restricting access to genetic resources and new technologies, loss of traditions e.g. saving seeds, private-sector monopoly and loss of income of small and poor farmers. Moreover, legal battles between GMO producers and farmers are also becoming common.
French scientists led by Gilles-Eric Seralini at the University of Caen in Normandy conducted a study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology which stated that rats fed with NK603 corn or exposed to the weed killer used in its cultivation developed tumours. In 14-months no animals in the control groups developed cancer, while 10 and 30 percent of the female rodents in the “treated” groups developed the disease. But by the 24th month, 50-80 percent of female rodents had developed tumours in all the groups. Male rodents developed liver damage, kidney problems, indigestion and skin tumours. France is getting its national health body to verify the study which could lead to suspension of NK603 imports.
However, developing a monitoring program is a great challenge in the LDCs especially Pakistan, where people are not aware of the hazards of GM foods, everybody is out there to make a quick buck and corruption is rampant. Moreover, environmental protection measures are not enforced effectively and research and development funds that would strengthen local expertise are not available. Research is desired only if it a free good.
It is quite ironic that a country which is basically an agricultural country producing more than one fifth of its output from agriculture with a little less than half of its population in agriculture should be food insecure. Whether food insecurity has been created as a result of economic mismanagement or deliberately to create a market for GM foods in Pakistan is quite criminal. The consequent import of GM food items like lentils and vegetables from Australia, Canada and India is playing havoc with healths of the people of Pakistan. It is against this scenario that the recent move to approach the Ministry of Food Security to issue licenses to produce GM foods is being viewed with great anguish. A cheaper and healthier alternative to the problem of food insecurity is organic farming which does not entail import of seeds, fertilisers and insecticides. Since it does not require these high tech inputs, organic farming does not require large amounts of water. Organic farming would therefore not only be cheaper, but a more healthy alternative as well. Will the democratic governments elected in the provinces and the centre show the same commitment to interests of the people of Pakistan that they expressed so loudly during election campaigns!
* Director Research, Chief Editor Pakistan Business Review & HOD Economics, Institute of Business Management (IOBM), Karachi, Pakistan.