- Pakistan has been an agrarian economy since prehistoric times. The recent cotton decline should raise a red flag in the minds of Pakistan’s policy makers.
- Pakistan’s public and private sector needs to work in close partnership to create indigenous varieties of drought, pest and climate-resistant seeds. Moreover, Pakistani farmers need find organic ways of combating pest
- Import of GMO-seeds need to be better regulated and monitored. Pakistan’s biodiversity needs to be preserved.
There is no such thing as a free lunch. Even the dictators in ancient times understood that if they wanted to control the people (read: the economy), they would have to control the food supply. How Despots Arose with Agriculture by Simon Powers indeed makes for an interesting read. Apparently, humanity’s turning point in prehistory was when some ancient nomad tribesman figured out how to grow food from seeds and invented farming.
The archaeologists consider the invention of agriculture a ‘Neolithic Revolution.’ “Out of agriculture, cities and civilizations grew, and because crops and animals could now be farmed to meet demand, the global population rocketed—from some five million people 10,000 years ago, to more than seven billion today,” notes National Geographic’s Genographic Project, explaining the development of agriculture in prehistoric times. Evidently, new technology was making the world turn in ancient times too.
Agriculture: the backbone of Pakistan’s economy
Pakistan is no stranger to agriculture as an industry. Apparently, our folk from earliest times, for example, Indus Valley Civilization had domesticated wheat, barley and rice, millet, cotton and legumes, not to mention, oranges, dates and mangoes, peas and sesame seed. Harappa’s society was a technological peer of the early civilizations of China and Egypt. Agriculture was well established throughout most of the subcontinent. The Mughal Empire was also another well-known example of rich agricultural produce in the world. Spices, cotton, wheat, rice and millet were some of its hot cash crops. (Source: Encyclopedia Britannica). Interestingly, America was discovered in the fifteenth century precisely because the Spanish were looking for alternative sea routes to the fabled land of riches: India and didn’t want to go through the Turks via the land route, according to Stephen Yafa in his book, Cotton, the Biography of a revolutionary Fiber. Columbus insisted that he had discovered India because he could see the natives were dressed in cotton and gold earrings when he landed on the coast of the Caribbean Sea at what’s now known as the Bahamas. The natives from then onwards were called the red “Indians.”
Agriculture is still the mainstay of our economy. According to Economic Survey of Pakistan (2015-16), “this sector contributes 19.8 percent in gross domestic product (GDP) – which is the total value of all final goods and services produced within the economy during a certain period – and it remains by far the largest employer absorbing 42.3 percent of the country’s total labor force.”
However, this sector doesn’t seem to be doing so well right now, (which seems surprising as traditionally Punjab, the land of five rivers was known as ‘the granary of India,’ just hundred years ago and was as famous as the ‘fertile crescent’ in ancient history – cotton textiles derived from our agricultural produce also continue to play a key role and forms the backbone of our industry.). According to Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, weak figures of cotton production, which witnessed a decline of 27.8 percent and went down from 13.96 million bales in fiscal year 2015 to 10.74 million bales in the current year, shaved off a precious increase in GDP growth, as reported by The Express Tribune, Dark side: Agriculture pulls down GDP growth.
Read more: Agriculture: Through the Ages in Pakistan
Pakistan is traditionally ranked at fourth place in the world when it comes to cotton production. The continued decline of cotton crop begs the question if Pakistan is going to retain its position in the coming years?
According to OECD-Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2015), Agricultural Outlook 2015-2024, “By 2024, the United States, the European Union and Brazil are expected to remain among the top exporters.” Based on the projected figures for year 2024 as per the report, Pakistan’s export contribution (surplus production) will become less than 10 percent of world’s total trade and would only show significant edge in rice. This is, of course, just an expert opinion at this point, since future has not come to pass, however, don’t forget Pakistan is projected to be the 23rd most water stressed country by 2040 as per World Resources Institute (WRI) report, and rice requires a lot of water to thrive. In other words, beefing up our rice production for export might prove detrimental to the future of our agriculture industry and our other cash crops. Pakistan is one of the top producers of wheat, rice, cotton, sugarcane and milk in the world, not to mention, some fruit and vegetables. It would be a pity to lose our edge and livelihood by 2024-2040 if we don’t make important policy changes today.
Recent cotton decline
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has reduced Pakistan’s 2016-17 cotton production forecast to 8.0 million bales, “Down 1.0 million bales or 11 percent from last month, but still up 1.0 million bales or 14 percent from last year,” notes USDA’s World Agricultural Production circular for July 2016. “Area harvested is estimated at 2.5 million hectares (mha), down 0.2 mha or 7.4 percent from last month, and down 0.3 mha or 11 percent from last year,” it states further.
“Yield is estimated at 694 kilograms per hectare, down 4.4 percent from last month, but up 28 percent from last year. Growers have sown more corn and sugarcane this season and reduced cotton acreage. Corn and sugarcane producers benefit from tariffs that insulate domestic market prices from the international market, while cotton producers face lower prices and competition from cotton imports. Yield is forecast to rebound this season as farmers exercise greater caution not to repeat last season’s attempts to lower input costs in response to low market prices. In 2015-16 growers reduced pesticide applications which resulted in a 30 percent decrease in yield due to severe whitefly infestations. Yields in 2015-16 were 544 kilograms per hectare, the lowest in the past 17 years,” the USDA circular concludes.
Cotton production is in shambles. “Though experts and agriculturists attribute this shortfall to climate change and erratic rainfall to a great extent, the widespread use of outdated and untested genetically modified seed has also turned out to be the main reason for this crisis,” reports Shahzada Irfan Ahmed for The News on Sunday, ‘A different ‘boll’ game.’
“In Pakistan, obsolete first generation seed technology is being used while the world has shifted to a 3rd generation seed technology,” concurs Khalid Abdullah, the Cotton Commissioner at the Textile Ministry of Pakistan. According to him, there are about 750 registered seed companies in the country. About 50 percent of cotton seeds are being provided by these registered seed companies while the remaining 50 percent demand is being fulfilled by uncertified seeds.
“The government should focus on introducing latest seed technology and certified seeds should be distributed to the growers in order to increase per acre yield,” recommends Akbar Seth, a textile industrialist invited as a special guest at the July meeting of Senate Standing Committee on Textile. “Cotton cultivation area in Pakistan is decreasing while it has increased threefold in India,” he told the committee as reported by Daily Times in a news report, Senate concerned over declining cotton production dated July 20, 2016.
Seed Act 2015
According to the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2015-16, the Seed Amendment Bill, 2015 was passed by the National Assembly on March 16, 2015 and by the Senate on July 7th, 2015.
The Seed Amendment Bill, 2015 after being approved by both the houses of the parliament was signed by the President of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on 23rd July, 2015 which was subsequently published in the Gazette of Pakistan, Extraordinary, Part-I as an Act No. VII of 2015 on 29th July, 2015. With the enactment of this Act, the government hopes that it would serve as an effective deterrence against the sale of fake and substandard seeds. Moreover, the private sector has been authorized to produce basic seeds as well as to establish their own accredited seed testing laboratories. The government hopes to attract more private sector investments and also create a new source of revenue.
As per the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2015-16, Pakistan’s national seed policy is in the process of finalization. The draft was prepared at the Ministry level and consultation was made by the department in collaboration with Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). For the necessary input from all stakeholders, a working group was constituted comprising public, private seed sectors’ representatives. The draft has been finalized and is ready for final approval.
“The (seed) law makes it mandatory for farmers to buy seeds from a licensed company or its agent,” says Raja Majeed, national coordinator of Pakistan Kissan Mazdoor Tehreek, an alliance of small and landless farmers. “They have to do so every time they cultivate a new crop. This, he says, will create a monopoly of companies and make farmers dependent on them.
According to him, the experience of growing genetically modified (GM) crops, for instance Bt cotton, has been disastrous in the country and the government’s intention to promote them through this law is unfortunate. Bt cotton seed contains a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis. The plants produce insecticidal proteins to provide an effective, environmentally safe pest control.
“It’s a failure because it’s a water demanding crop meant for colder areas and is ready for harvest near November. That means we can’t grow wheat on time. Many European countries have banned GM crops because of their severe adverse impact on the environment and we should have done the same,” he asserts.
“Pakistan has amended its seed laws to comply with the monopolistic demands of mega agro-chemical corporations such as Monsanto, Syngenta, Pioneer and others,” explains Wali Haider, the Joint Director of Roots for Equity. Clarifying his point of view further, he says, in 1995, the extremely anti-people, anti-farmer World Trade Organization (WTO) was formed much against the will of the people, globally. A major reason for people protesting against the formation of the WTO was the Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPS) which demanded patent rights on seeds as well as all other new technologies.
“Billions of farmers across the globe are suffering from aggressive neo-colonial legislation imposed by the WTO and corporate agriculture monopolistic giants. Policies range from allowing corporate land grab in Pakistan to aggressive imports of agriculture related technologies ranging from genetic engineering, animal husbandry and the so-called green economy,” he says.
Under the new law, only those seed dealers and companies will be allowed to undertake commercial activity of seeds which are registered with the relevant authorities. “Farmers’ right to conserve, sell and exchange seeds has been taken away under this law,” says Nasir Aziz, a policy officer on sustainable livelihood with ActionAid Pakistan. “It is silent on guarantees on seed germination and has no mechanism for taking legal action against a company if its seeds fail to produce desired results,” he comments, raising questions over the law’s implementation in provinces.
“There is no mechanism to approve the GM seed varieties after the 18th amendment,” asserts Ahmed Rafay Alam, an environmental law practitioner. According to him, before this amendment, the federal government could approve these varieties under Biosafety Rules 2005. “The Director General Pakistan Environment Protection Agency (DG Pak EPA) had confessed in the court in 2014 that there is no regulatory mechanism in place in this regard and promised that he would not issue a single license to private companies,” he told The News on Sunday. He did keep his promise, reveals Alam, however, after his transfer in 2016, the DG Environment was given the additional charge of DG Pak EPA under whose tenure around 80 licenses have been issued. Those licenses have been challenged in the court and hearing is scheduled for later this year, he adds further. What worries Alam is that “many licenses are pertaining to GM seeds of edible crops like corn and wheat.” Unregulated seeds’ use may damage people’s health and lives, he laments.
Read more: Pakistan at Risk
On the other hand, U.S. farmers are protected by a comprehensive system to ensure seed quality, according to USDA’s handbook, The Seed Industry in U.S. Agriculture. Varietal registration, a key protection for farmers who purchase seed, provides a system for establishing a variety’s genetic identity and its performance characteristics, such as yield or disease resistance. In the United States, plant breeders register varieties with Federal agencies responsible for awarding plant patents or protection certificates. These agencies can provide farmers with information on the characteristics of different varieties that might otherwise be overly complicated or difficult to obtain in the marketplace. U.S. plant breeders are not required to provide information on a variety’s performance characteristics, which is typically ascertained through field tests (Tripp, 1998, p. 160). Field testing is mandatory, however, in cases involving the introduction of GE organisms. Seed certification and quality testing also offer protection to farmers. Seed certification establishes the genetic purity of a seed, while quality testing ascertains such information as germination rates, moisture content, or seed size. Individual States oversee the process of seed certification through State agencies, such as agricultural extension services; State agricultural departments; or independent bodies, such as crop improvement associations. The certification system is not a rigorous process of mandatory testing; rather, seed companies are required to adhere to truthful labeling provisions that permit companies to sell seed as long as seed quality information is completely disclosed on the packaging. This labeling provision is considered highly effective (Tripp, 1998, p. 164).
Since genetically modified organism (GMO) products have become extremely controversial in the U.S., to sort this out and for consumer protection, the President of United States Barak Obama has recently signed a bill “which directs the secretary of Agriculture to establish a ‘national mandatory bioengineered food disclosure standard,’” as per the news report dated August 3rd, 2016, USDA establishes GMO law implementation panel as controversy continues.
GMO stands for “genetically modified organism,” which is a new organism, not found in nature, created by scientists when they genetically modify or engineer food plants. Health and environmental risks with genetically modified foods have been identified.
“In the wake of the creation of a national, mandatory labeling system, Campbell’s, Mars and Dannon have already publicly committed to keeping this simple disclosure on their packages as USDA sorts out the rules for implementation of this new law. I have sent a letter to other industry leaders asking them to publicly commit to keeping consumers out of the dark when it comes to GMOs in our food,” says Gary Hirshberg, chairman of Just Label It and Stonyfield Farm in the same news report.
According to the same news report, the law requires “mandatory disclosure” of genetically modified ingredients, but leaves it up to the companies to decide whether to use on-package labels, a symbol that USDA has yet to develop, or a link to a smartphone app or website that will provide further information. Another uncertainty is whether USDA will require labeling if the ingredients do not have any traces of genetic modification but came from the planting of genetically modified seed, as would be the case with beet sugar. The law says that products containing such ingredients would not need to be labeled, but the USDA General Counsel’s office has said the final decision would be up to the Agriculture secretary when the law is implemented.
Folk in the U.S. might be arguing over GMO foods carrying labels or not, however, the next generation of GMO technology like CRISPR-Cas9 would need new regulations altogether. According to a news article by MIT Technology Review, ‘Here Come the Unregulated GMOs, “Over at Scientific American you can read a 6,000-word story about how one such organism, a GM mushroom, was created. The short version is that a plant scientist named Yinong Yang used the gene-editing technique called CRISPR to snip out a few DNA letters in the genome of ‘Agaricus bisporus, the most popular dinner-table mushroom in the Western world.’ The result: he turned off an enzyme that turns mushrooms brown,” reports Antonio Regalado.
It passed because, “Yang’s mushroom doesn’t have any bacterial DNA in its genome. He didn’t add any DNA at all, he told the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Instead, he just used gene-editing to blow a few teeny little holes in one gene and shut it off,” concludes Regalado.
The Benefits of Biotech Crops
GM corn to help Pakistan reap benefit of $ 1 billion in next 10 years.
Aamir Mahmmod Mirza from Monsanto, a sustainable agriculture company that provides farmers with solutions for efficient use of resources, while discussing the importance of genetically modified (GM) seeds said, globally, GM seeds of maize, cotton, canola and soybean had created tremendous value for farmers, industry and environment.
Up to 18 million farmers benefited from biotech crops from the year 1996 to 2015 while 90 percent of them were small resource-poor farmers. During this period biotech crops contributed to food security, sustainability and environment/climate change by increasing crop production valued at $150 billion.
This did not end here. The biotech crops also provided a better environment, saved 584 million kilograms of pesticides in 2014 alone, reduced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 27 billion kilograms—equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road for one year—and conserved biodiversity by saving 152 million hectares of land. These crops also helped alleviate poverty for 16.5 million small farmers and their families totaling 65 million people—who are some of the poorest people in the world. In Pakistan, cotton is the only crop where farmer had access to GM seeds but unfortunately due to the illegal introduction in the market, the benefits could not be reaped and the cotton crop was badly damaged. Only developers and licensees should be allowed to market the GM seeds, he asserts.
In Pakistan, maize is also a success story of the international companies as far as hybrid seed is concerned. Farmers and economy have taken tremendous benefits out of it. Punjab which sows 45 percent of the total corn crop has replaced 90 percent of its seed with hybrid, while in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) which sows 50 percent of the total corn of Pakistan, its usage reached to 10-15 percent. In Punjab, the usage of hybrid seeds has taken productivity from 20 to 30 per 40 kilograms per acre on average to 70-75 per 40 kilograms per acre.
The spring season, sowing is also getting more yield as day (sunlight) is longer and food factory or the plant works more. In KP there are more small-landholding farmers so the government has to support them to switch over to the new varieties.
As the government has now also approved GM corn, it is hoped that the next generation technology would help Pakistan reap benefit of $ 1 billion in next 10 years. The present production of 5 million tons per annum of corn crop may reach to 5.5 million tons. Allowing farmers to choose to grow GM corn will help them compete with farmers in other corn producing countries that already use this technology to boost their yields.
According to Monsanto experts, they have provided access to the world-class seeds of different vegetables and corn to Pakistani farmers. This company has vast footprint in seed and biotechnology in multiple crops along with mastery in modern agricultural technologies such as precision agriculture and climate data usage etc. An enabling environment should be created to attract investments by such companies in agriculture sector of Pakistan.
The importance of seed in agriculture
“Many factors may affect the output of cultivation,” explains Rita Zecchinelli, technical auditor at International Seed Testing Association (ISTA) in her talk, ‘The importance of quality seed in agriculture,’ at the world’s second Seed Conference held at FAO headquarters in Rome, in 2009. “Environmental conditions, soil characteristics, watering, fertilization treatments, tillage, the farmer, local and global market. The seed is the first determinant of the future plant development,” she asserts. “Benefits from the breeding can only be transferred to the farmer if good quality seed is released,” she explains.
“Seed quality determination, as established by ISTA, on seed to be supplied to farmers is an important measure for achieving successful agricultural production,” this was one of the key note findings of the second seed conference. “The establishment or maintenance of an appropriate infrastructure on the scientific as well as technical level in developed and developing countries is highly recommended,” the conference handout recommends.
Seed is the most vital and crucial input for crop production or in a broad sense seed is a material which is used for planting or regeneration purposes. One of the ways to increase the yield without adding appreciably to the extent of the land now under cultivation, is by planting quality seeds. Seed transfers the genetic potential of a variety to the next generation. Seed is the basis of food security which leads to national security.
Although the importance of seeds was recognized in ancient agriculture, the need for organized seed production was identified only at the beginning of 20thcentury in our part of the world. According to a research paper, ‘History of seed production and its key issues,’ by T. C. Poonia, “The Royal Commission on Agriculture, established in 1925, recommended for introduction and spread of improved crop varieties, from where started the review of importance of seed and its commercialization.”
New farm technologies that are causing a buzz in the world
The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) released a study called ‘Food Security in a World of Natural Resource Scarcity, The role of agricultural technologies,’ in 2014. According to this book, there are 11 agricultural innovations that can stand its ground against the world’s escalating urbanization, desertification and food scarcity, water shortage and climate change challenges. Taken together as an aggregate, these 11 innovations can help improve crop yields by up to 67 percent by 2050 while slashing food prices by nearly 50 percent, reports IFPRI.
The 174-page report studies the impact of these 11 techniques on three crops: corn, rice and wheat. The 11 innovations’ impact is studied in combination and separately. These innovations are: crop protection, drip irrigation, drought and heat tolerant plant varieties, integrated soil fertility management, nitrogen use efficiency, no-till, organic agriculture, precision agriculture, sprinkler irrigation, and water harvesting.
No solution stands alone but integration of these technologies can make a difference as noted on the report. “Globally, the largest production increases compared to the baseline in 2050 are achieved through no-till and heat tolerance for maize, [nitrogen-use efficiency] and [precision agriculture] for rice, and non-till and [precision agriculture] for wheat.”
The advent of modern plant breeding methods and biotechnological advances in seed industry play a significant role in developing high yielding varieties and hybrids, (which are the plants resulting from a cross between genetically unlike species and are usually sterile.).
Other next generation gene editing technologies like “CRISPR-Cas9 can, as an example, be used to alter the DNA in germ cells (or embryos) resulting in permanent changes to the genetic makeup of every differentiated cell in a resulting organism and to that organism’s progeny. The system is so efficient that the genetic changes it introduces could become self-propagating,” explains Jennifer A. Doudna for MIT Technology Review’s Views –Genome Gambits. She is one of the inventors of CRISPR technology.
Another promising non-GMO technology that could provide a boost to agricultural productivity while also controlling insect-borne disease is sprayed-on RNAi. This technology “could let farmers alter crops without permanent genetic modification. It could, one day, allow farmers to spray a crop with drought remedy only when there’s a drought,” declares John Killmer for MIT Technology Review’s Views – Like GMOs, Minus the Baggage. However, the technology is “incredibly expensive,” which is an impediment to its use.
The state of seeds in Pakistan
More than 750 private seed companies are on the national register but only 50 percent are functional, declares Jamshed Iqbal Cheema, the President of Pakistan Agriculture Scientists Association (PASA).
Five multinational seed companies, Syngenta, Pioneer, Monsanto, Bayer and ICI Seeds, are trading seed with limited local production. Four public sector seed organizations are working under their respective provincial governments, however, only Punjab Seed Corporation seems to be active. Only a few local seed companies are engaged in developing new varieties, hybrids however, international companies have competitive proprietary germplasm in rice, maize (corn) and vegetables. The seed sector of Pakistan is passing through transitory phase but due to technical and administrative obstacles, overall availability of quality seed is just over 20 percent only for the last 15 years.
Read more: Pakistan’s Cotton Emergency
The PASA President elaborates further that high number of seed companies is the biggest impediment to development of seed market in Pakistan. We should promote only those companies which have research facilities, breeding programs, proper storage, and marketing facilities and can carry out farmer-awareness programs. Pakistan, as far as agricultural production is concerned, stands in top 10 producers of many crops including cotton, wheat, sugarcane, rice etc., but when it comes to seed production we are not mentioned even in the top 30 to 40 countries. He says, at present total seed market of Pakistan is over PKR 20 billion while it has the potential of going up to PKR 220 billion.
Research in seed can be of three types, Cheema explains further, one, to produce seed for higher yields having better germination, pure of any contamination and with strong vigor. Second is to develop hybrid seeds which can enhance production from 25 to 30 percent and third is to develop genetically modified crops. “Unfortunately, we are doing research in the first type of seed development but that too, of poor quality while later two types of seeds are totally ignored. We are not paying any attention to bringing in new technology bearing seeds to meet the requirement of ever increasing population,’ Cheema concludes.
“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel but should adopt the methods being practiced that deliver results internationally,” says Javed S. Qureshi, CEO of a big Seed and Pesticide company. He was of the view that our seed sector needs total revamping.
In his opinion, varietal approval laws of Pakistan date back to the Stone Age which has been shunned by the rest of the world. “Now is the time to check potential of a seed by DNA testing technology. Just like a human beings, these plants, too, have a DNA and analysis of these could reveal the potential, germination and yield capabilities of any seed.”
Qureshi further says, the world over, governments have withdrawn themselves from the approval process rather they have set parameters of seed of any crop. They ask the breeders to come up with their new seeds, meet official parameters and market their seeds commercially. “This is the age of truthful labeling, companies coming up with new seed technologies should print the parameters of their seeds on the packaging in comparison with the government parameters and take responsibility for their products,” he says. He said in Pakistan when a breeder prepares any seed variety after research of four to five years and in some cases even of 10 years, it approaches the government which further takes 3 to five years for approval.
He alleged that some time black sheep in the government department, who are responsible for approval of new varieties, shake hands with other marketers who spread this new variety before it gets approved which causes financial damage to the breeders.
He recommends that the government should sit down with seed industry representatives and draft parameters of different crops and then just play the role of monitor and regulator so as those marketing their seed varieties should be made responsible for their product and any negative results that happen because of it. He also said that the coming era is of GMO seed. We need such seeds which can cope with climate changes, weeds etc. He also called for an establishment of public-private partnership for agriculture research. In his view, the controlling authority should be with the private sector so the research institutes can carry out market driven research. He said the companies in research and development should be given incentives by the government. He also called for immediate approval of Plant Breeders Rights Act as in his opinion it will open the way for multi-national and national companies to develop seed with new technologies.
The Punjab Minister for Agriculture, Dr. Farrukh Javed said that the federal and provincial governments are fully cognizant of the importance of bringing in new seed technologies to increase the per acre yield.
He said that the Punjab has recently introduced some new wheat varieties which include heat tolerant, short duration, drought tolerant seed varieties. He said that the research institutes are playing a vital role in introducing these new seed varieties which are aimed at coping with changing climate and other issues. ‘Yousafwala Hybrid Maize’ is another introduction by the government institutes for more production.
Regarding Cotton, he said that the GM varieties being used in this crop had old gene with low expression. He said that the government was striving hard to bring new technologies which could better the production of crops and investment was being made at the public level in this regard. He said that approval of seed act and plant breeders’ rights by the assembly was part of these efforts.
“We are also negotiating with the companies who are dealing in cotton seed having the latest technology to introduce such varieties in the province so as the farmers can get benefit of it,” Dr. Farrukh Javed said.
He admitted the importance of research in introduction of new seeds which could ensure better yield. Universities are doing basic research but Ayub Agriculture Research Institute (AARI) Faisalabad is a strong arm of the government. He said that lot of work is being done on cotton, potato, maize and other crops. However, he admitted, that room for improvement always exists. “We need to go a long way forward as we are significantly behind the rest of the world,” he said and added that full attention is being paid for better and improved research.
Native seeds preservation and biodiversity
For thousands of years, farmers collected, saved and replanted seeds from one year to the next.
This process stopped with the advent of modern farm practices. The world’s crop diversity has declined due to monoculture customs of recent times. Our food supply is dependent on a small selection of crops, making it more vulnerable to diseases, pests and climate change. Suddenly the world has woken up and discovered many plant and crop varieties are gone forever. The United Nations has declared 2010 to be the International Year of Biodiversity.
Informal and formal seed banks have become fashionable again. There’s a doomsday seed vault buried deep in permafrost a few kilometers from the Arctic Circle in Norway. The vault was created as a means to preserve human agriculture for an uncertain future. War-torn Syria was one of its depositors back in 2014. For the first time, seeds were removed from the vault by a Syrian organization after it decided to move its seed bank from Aleppo to Beirut. Lucky for Syria and the world, there’s such a seed vault.
As per another news report by thethirdpole.net, Seed banks help communities adapt to climate change, villagers in Nepal started a community based seed bank when they realized that two local fine grain aromatic varieties of rice, ‘ jhinuwa and ghiupuri’ had almost disappeared. “It was then farmers decided to organize themselves to conserve local biodiversity. They formed a village development committee, which today has 700 farmers as members. Among its many activities, the committee set up a fund to provide farmers with low-interest loans if they grow one or two local crop varieties,” notes the news report.
Is Pakistan following suit? According to a news report by the Guardian, ‘Seed banks in south Asia: building grassroots support for crop diversity, “The prevalence of seed banks in Pakistan has been limited to combat post-disaster rehabilitation efforts. Numerous aid agencies, such as Action Aid and Concern Worldwide, saw seed banks as a prompt and effective way to distribute seeds to normalize household conditions after the floods in 2010. However, despite protests and activism, seed banks are still not seen as a long-term solution in that part of the world – primarily due to tenancy farming or feudalism (particularly in the south),” reports Muneezay Jaffery.
However, Pakistan is making an effort to preserve its biodiversity at public levels at least.
“Pakistan is situated in proximity to major centers of plant species diversity,” claims Zahoor Ahmad and Rashid Anwar, Principal Scientific Officer, Plant Genetic Resources Institute, National Agricultural Research Centre, and Director, Plant Genetic Resources Institute, National Agricultural Research Centre respectively in their research paper, Pakistan’s National Germplasm System with Emphasis on Acquisition, Evaluation, Access and Exchange. “The ancient trade route from China to Western Asia passed through this region and many crop and fruit species were introduced and cultivated for thousands of years,” they explain further.
According to them, Pakistan’s rich floristic composition and crop biodiversity led to systematic efforts to collect crop germplasm. This started in the early 1970s when rice germplasm was collected under a project funded by the United States of America. In 1977, after this project ended, the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) initiated a national program to collect, conserve and evaluate plant genetic resources. A small gene bank for short-term storage and a laboratory was established under this program at the National Agricultural Research Centre (NARC), Islamabad.
In 1993, NARC established a very new facility for germplasm storage and associated research with the financial support from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Upon the facility’s completion, the former Genetic Resources Program belonging to the Crop Sciences Institute was reorganized into the Plant Genetic Resources Institute (PGRI) directly affiliated with NARC.
The six laboratories of the Plant Genetic Resources Institute work in six areas: (1) germplasm exploration and collection; (2) seed preservation; (3) evaluation and multiplication; (4) in vitro preservation; (5) introduction and seed health; and (6) information management.
Ahmed Raza has an abiding interest in technology. He writes under a different pen name for leading news dailies.