GMO (Bt crops) are produced by altering the DNA of the organism, while hybrids are developed through natural process of hybridisation. It does not involve alteration of the DNA. While organic farming uses natural seeds, manure and insecticides. But many times the terms hybrid, bioediting and Genetically Modified Organism (GMOs) are used interchangeably causing confusion.
GMOs have been banned by 64 countries which includes 19 European Union countries, several Central Asian Republics, the Russian Federation, etc. Health conscious western consumers have rejected GMOs due to their impacts on health and biodiversity. Some rich countries are faced with harsh weather and scarcity of irrigated land, yet they are not going for GMOs. In fact, the WWF is growing organic crops in Pakistan for Western consumers. Similarly, a political personality from Sindh has received a ten year order for the supply of organic rice and wheat to a U.S. co, which is insisting that not only the seeds be organic, but no chemical fertilizers and pesticides should be used.
When these double standards are pointed out we are told that GMOs are the answer for the famines and food insecurity afflicting LDCs. In this article I will examine the economics of GM technology to explore whether they can be a viable option for the problem of food insecurity in these countries. I will evaluate their impact on imports, exports, foreign exchange and balance of payments with consequences on health, environment and food security.
The Pakistani market was flooded with GMOs even before the Seed Act 1976 was amended in 2015. We have been consuming Bt wheat, fruits, vegetables and lentils by importing these from Canada, Australia and India. Our cotton seeds were replaced by GM seeds during the course of the Cotton Productivity Enhancement Project initiated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture when 88 percent of Pakistan’s cotton acreage was planted with GM cotton seeds instead of the existing natural seeds. Cotton production declined from 14.1 mn bales in 2004 to 10.5 mn bales after the introduction of GM cotton.
Moreover, Agriculture and Cold Chain Development (PACCD), a subsidiary of Winrock International, a US NGO working under the patronage of USAID distributed apple samplings in Balochistan whose description resembles GMOs, without informing the farmers that they are GMOs. And more recently, US AID was trying to promote Syngenta’s GM paddy seeds. The price of a packet of Syngenta’s seeds was Rs 5000, while the same quantity of local seeds were available for Rs 1500. Farmers were therefore not switching to Syngenta’s GM seeds. U.S. AID, therefore, leased land from a farmer in Shikarpur and started cultivation of Bt rice. Since the yield was high a lot of rice farmers in Shikarpur are now growing Bt rice which entered the market in December 2015.
Other aid agencies in collaboration with UNDP, World Food Program (WFP), International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) are also taking a keen interest in food security in LDCs. Recently the Japanese government in collaboration with UNDP and WFP has announced $10.6 million to fight malnutrition and improve livelihood in KP, Sindh and Baluchistan. Out of this $ 3.5 million are for nutrition of the most vulnerable families in KP. This is a generous gesture, but it needs to be examined whether the food supplied to the most vulnerable are not GM, as this will make these families even more vulnerable.
When Imran Khan visited the Institute of Business Management a couple of months before he became the Prime Minister, I expressed my disappointment at PTI for joining other the political parties in amending the Seed Act 1976 in the parliament in March 2015. He said PTI passed the amendment to the Seed Act 1976 as they were not aware about its implications. But recently the food giant Cargill after meeting Prime Minister Imran Khan announced investment of $200 mn in the next five years. This was followed by the American Business Council of Pakistan seeking PM Imran Khan’s help in the removal of obstacles in commercial production of GM maize in Pakistan. This announcement has raised serious concerns about the commercial production of GMOs in this country. But it is encouraging to note that the Federal Minister for National Food Security recently resisted efforts of the GMO lobby in Pakistan to expedite commercial production of GM maize. The Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek has rejected the commercial production of GM maize and have raised the slogan “NO TO GM MAIZE”. The Seed Association of Pakistan has also opposed the commercial production of GM maize.
GMOs will increase our dependence on corporations resulting in corporate monopolies on crops. This is because GM seeds have to be purchased from foreign seed companies by paying them in foreign exchange. Moreover, seeds from GM crops can not be used for sowing and fresh seeds have to be imported for each sowing. In addition, on account of increased fertilizer and herbicide use, they increase the cost of production of crops, increasing our foreign exchange requirements, adversely impacting the precarious balance of payments crisis with severe consequences on food prices and food security in Pakistan.
In view of the already precarious foreign exchange availability in Pakistan, the previous federal and Punjab Government made attempts to arrange $70 mn from the World Bank to purchase GM seeds from Monsanto at a time when the country’s external indebtedness had exceeded $74 bn. This reveals that the country will have to borrow credit to feed its population. If we are successful in obtaining loans to feed our population it will be at a very heavy price by increasing our foreign debts. And what if we are not able to secure these loans ? This will have horrendous implications on food security and the overall security of the country !
Production of Bt crops and the absence of a Labeling Law will affect the balance of payments via exports as well. Mixing up GM, hybrid and organic products means that we will not be able to export to countries that have banned GMOs and this includes EU and the Russian Federation. In this context, it is pertinent to mention here that the testing of Pakistan’s rice in the EU in the recent past found traces of GMOs about which the EU expressed its displeasure. Similarly, testing of Pakistani mango pulp in the Russian federation found traces of GMOs, which was present in the powder used as a preservative and imported from the US. Majority of countries in the European Union and the Russian Federation have banned GMOs and traces of GMOs in our exports means that we will not be able to take advantage of GSP Plus status granted to us by the EU and to take advantage of the vast Russian market for fruits, vegetables and other food items.
Our inability to increase our exports will have a serious impact on our balance of payments. As a result our rate of growth which is already stagnating will take a nose dive. Reduction in our rate of growth and exports means reduction in foreign exchange earnings. Our dependence on foreign seed companies will increase our food insecurity at time when our rate of GDP growth and exports will be at an all time low, our imports surging and foreign exchange requirements at a climax and that also for the import of an item as important as food !
GMOs also have serious impacts on the health and environment of the country. Bt crops have lower nutrient content. Moreover, the virus present in them is supposed to increase their shelf life. As a result of lower nutrient content and the presence of virus, they increase allergic reactions causing increase in the production of harmful proteins. GMOs have been found to increase cancer and cause Horizontal Gene Transfer between modified organisms and human bacteria. The WHO has warned that glyphosate which is an ingredient in Roundup Ready is carcinogenic. Adoption of GM technologies has raised social and ethical concerns also 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. FAO has also drawn our attention to problems associated with pest resistance, contamination of non-GMO crops and potential toxicity of GM foods and products. Another very important issue is on account of the Intellectual Property Rights of the farmers, as their natural and healthier seeds are the result of years of research and hard labour. Treating them as inferior and robbing them of their intellectual property is adding insult to injury.
A cheaper and healthier alternative to the problem of food insecurity is organic farming which does not entail import of seeds, fertilizers and insecticides. Since it does not require these high tech inputs, organic farming does not require foreign exchange. It also does not require large amounts of water which is already scarce in Pakistan. Organic farming would, therefore, not only be cheaper, but a more healthy alternative as well. If the government is serious about making Pakistan food secure it should give 7 to 10 acres of hitherto uncultivated land to landless peasants in areas where water is not a serious problem. Improved irrigation methods like sprinkle irrigation, building of dams, etc should be undertaken by the government. Small loans from commercial banks can take care of seeds, natural manures and natural insecticides. Productivity of such organic farming will be high due to the use of virgin land. The produce from these organic farms should first be for the home market in Pakistan. This would be a far more effective and sustainable way to make the country food secure. And what is leftover can be exported. Shahida.firstname.lastname@example.org