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`Biotech solution to meet rising population needs`
29-March-2012 Dawn
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KARACHI, March 28: Pakistan needs to cut defence spending and invest more in biotechnology research so that its poor could get food at an affordable price, said speakers at a press conference here on Wednesday.

The event was organised to launch a report prepared by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications on the global status of commercialised biotech/ genetically modified crops at the Latif Ebrahim Jamal National Science Information Centre, Karachi University.

The speakers highlighted the challenges Pakistan was facing and said the situation was already critical as the number of people living in absolute poverty in the country was huge and it would worsen with the population increase, freshwater shortages, desertification and a decline in fertile land.

“Right now, we have a population of over 185 million people. Of them, more than 54 million are living below the line of absolute poverty. Currently, the poor are spending 70 to 80 per cent of their income on food.

“The per capita income consumption of wheat has dropped not because the people have started eating cakes, but because they simply can`t afford it. This is an alarming situation as the nation`s health is being compromised,” said Prof Dr Mohammad Iqbal Choudhary, director of the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences, KU, and the Pakistan Biotechnology Information Centre.

The country, he said, faced an absolute food security crisis which to a great extent could be dealt with the help of biotechnology with improved agricultural and irrigation management practices.

“With a lesser use of water and pesticides, you can not only grow better quality of crops, but also improve per hectare yield with the help of biotechnology,” he said.

The expert added that Pakistan, Egypt and Burkina Faso were the only Muslim countries where genetically modified crops were being commercially grown.

Agriculture and livestock, he said, were the country`s backbone and it must harness its potential to the fullest. Pakistan had the distinction of being among the largest producers of dates, mangoes, oranges (kinos), cotton and milk.

Regarding Pakistan`s progress in biotech crops, he said its use was currently restricted to only cotton crop and it was being grown on over 2.5 million hectares.

Speaking to the audience, Dr Yousuf Zafar, director-general of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, said though genetically modified cotton was being illegally grown in the country since 2005, its cultivation was officially allowed in 2010.

“The use of biotechnology has officially been accepted as a tool for growth and it is now a part of the country`s policy documents. Currently, 32 centres are involved in biotechnology related work,” he said, adding that about 92 per cent of the agricultural area in the country was under Bt cotton.

Despite floods, the country had a record-breaking production of cotton this year with a lesser input of pesticides and this could be achieved because a legal cover was provided to growing well-researched indigenous seeds. The country, he said, was in a position to achieve `cotton vision 2015`.

“The focus has been on cotton because it`s a vital component of our economy. But work is in progress to produce other genetically modified crops, too. About 155 cases are pending with the government for approval of different GM crops,” he said.

Answering a question about factors hampering growth of biotechnology, he said the country needed to support the institutions involved in research and sustain the progress being made in the field.

On biotech solutions to the energy crisis, he said Pakistan was the number one exporter of molasses and there was a dire need that investment was made to produce ethanol from the sugarcane waste.

ISAAA report

According to the report prepared by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), biotech crops are the fastest adopted crop technology in the world. The year 2011 was the 16th year of commercialisation of biotech crops, 1996 to 2011, when growth continued after remarkable 15 consecutive years of increases; a double-digit increase of 12 million hectares at a growth rate of eight per cent, reaching a record of 160 million hectares.

Of the 29 countries planting biotech crops in 2011, 19 were developing and 10 were industrial countries, it says.

Pakistan, according to the report, stood at number eight among the biotech growing countries. The United States was on top followed by Brazil, Argentina, India, Canada, China and Paraguay.

Genetically modified crops have been introduced in the world include cotton, maize, soyabean, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, papaya, poplar, tomato and sweet pepper.

“To date biotech cotton in developing countries such as China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bolivia, Burkina Faso and South Africa have already made a significant contribution to the income of 15 million small resource-poor farmers in 2011; this can be enhanced significantly in the remaining four years of the second decade of commercialisation, 2012 to 2015, principally with biotech cotton, maize and rice,” it says.

It mentions progress of Bt cotton in India prominently and states that it has transformed the country by increasing yield substantially, decreasing insecticide applications by 50pc and through welfare benefits, contributed to the alleviation of poverty of seven million small resource-poor farmers and their families in 2011.

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