Pakistan made tremendous progress in developing agriculture biotechnology Dr Yusuf Zafar

Pakistan made tremendous progress in developing agriculture biotechnology by establishing over 50 institutes/centers in public sector during last three decades.

Pakistan made tremendous progress in developing agriculture biotechnology Dr Yusuf Zafar

Pakistan made tremendous progress in developing agriculture biotechnology by establishing over 50 institutes/centers in public sector during last three decades. A sizable human resource has been developed with sufficient expertise.

The modern biotechnology products delivery is tightly linked to IPR and Biosafety regulatory regimes. Unfortunately, the national biosafety regulatory regime is dysfunctional while the patent system is weak. Thus, “Bench to Business” (B2B) or Farm to Fork (F2F) models remained incomplete. Except Biotech cotton (Bt) no other Biotech crop reached to the local farmers. Moreover, FDI also remained shy due to non-functional regulatory regimes and resultantly MNCs closed their biotech business in the country.

The first GMO product (Flavor savor tomato) through genetic engineering under the broad area of modern agriculture biotechnology was officially released in the USA in May 1984. This enhanced shelf life tomato, unable to attract the consumers.

However, two years later, USDA /EPA permitted to release herbicide tolerant (Roundup ready) and insect resistant (Bt) cotton, corn and soybean which immediately spread like a wildfire among farmers and processors. Today almost 100% soybean in Argentina, Brazil and USA is GMO. The same is the case with cotton as well as of canola.

More than 28 countries allowed biotech crops to be grown on their fields, while almost all countries except a very tiny minority permitted to consume food/feed (FFP) containing GMO material. It is very important to note the fact that EU countries vehemently opposed Biotech/GM crops to be grown on their soil but one of the largest consumers of Biotech/GM corn, canola, cotton and soybean.

Pakistan is fortunate to establish first biotech research center (CEMB) in Lahore in 1986, at the very onset of initial global wave of biotechnology. The country at the start was better placed in agriculture biotechnology area as compared to IT sector, where Pakistan started very late vis-à-vis India.

Then National Institute of Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) was established in Faisalabad under Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) in 1992. Since then, more than 50 biotechnology centers have been established in the public sector. Capable human resource was developed by sending over 400 scholars to advanced countries for obtaining PhD degree in Biotechnology.

A sizeable human resource is being developed in national academic centers as over 30 institutes are awarding BS, MS and PhD degrees in this specialized subject. Various ministries (agriculture, education, S&T etc.) as well as Higher Education Commission provided liberal funding to incorporate various genes in major crops (corn, cotton, potato, sugarcane, wheat etc.) through genetic engineering.

The initial momentum and the government of Pakistan multiple policy documents stating Biotechnology as one of the engine of socio-economic development along with IT and nanotechnology attracted international development partners (USDA, USAID, ACIAR, ICAC-CFC etc.) as well as big multinational companies (MNCs) to invest in Pakistan for commercialization of Biotech crops especially corn and cotton. Few domestic private companies also started business in Biotech crops development/dissemination.

Pakistan was able to develop and commercialized Biotech cotton (Bt) which was officially released in 2008 after extensive biosafety review by National Biosafety Centre (NBC/EPA) of Ministry of Environment (now Ministry of Climate Change). The first generation of Bt cotton rapidly became popular and in a short duration covered over 90% of cotton area in the country.

The usage of pesticides especially for chewing insects reduced drastically, thus lowering the input cost for reduction of cotton. The cotton production also reached to 14 million bales, despite several other negative biotic and abiotic factors. However, this momentum could not be maintained. The GM cotton with single gene of Cry1Acremained in the field for nearly two decades with low toxicity.

Thus instead of benefit it resulted in low efficacy of Bt toxin and thus resistance development in the target chewing insects. Recently, GM cotton with 03 genes have been approved for commercialization (field release). Except cotton, no other crop (especially corn) was allowed to be commercialized in the country. The whole investment of over 20 billion rupees by taxpayers of Pakistan was blocked, and commercial release put on a grinding halt.

The major reason among other factors was non-availability of efficient and science-based regulatory system.

The genetic engineering is an extremely powerful technology. Therefore, the regulatory activities are necessary to offset impacts of modern biotechnology on food, health, environment, socio-economic progress of the country.

The National Biosafety Center (NBC) under a development project was established at Pak-EPA in April 2006 for a period of 05 years. Pakistan is signatory and ratified UN sponsored Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (2009) for safe use of agriculture biotechnology.

The Ministry of Climate Change of Government of Pakistan, under EPA established National Biosafety Center to implement Pakistan Biosafety Rules-2005 /Pakistan Biosafety Guidelines-2005 for development, commercial release and import/export of Genetically Modified (GM) products (FFP).

The Regulatory System of development, field release, commercialization and import of GMO Food/Feed/processed products (FFP) in Pakistan is dysfunctional, thus depriving the benefits of emerging technologies in reaching the masses of the country. Similarly, the import of over one billion US$ of Biotech soybean and Biotech Canola as FFP is facing frequent obstructions due to nonexistent of a workable and efficient regulatory system in the country.

Moreover, non-approval of the new Biotech/Gene Editing technologies in corn where Pakistan achieved great successes will soon be resulting in stagnation/decline in production thus hurting poultry and livestock sectors. Public sector national biotechnology centers developed and evaluated various Biotech crops, but unable to commercialize due to non-functional regulatory system.

Despite such challenging situation recently, our biotechnologists indigenous developed “Kleen Cotton” with three genes (2 genes for insect resistant + I gene for herbicide tolerance). This Biotech cotton was approved in 2021 for the field release and commercialization after thorough biosafety evaluation by NBC/Pak EPA.

The third generation of Biotech cotton will definitely bring positive change to stem the continuous decline in the production of cotton in Pakistan. The rapid dissemination of advanced lines of “Kleen Cotton” was made possible through eight local seed companies.

The indigenous development of third generation of Biotech cotton is itself a testimony of availability of strong and efficient national team of biotechnologists as well as enabling research environment for delivering such products which are at the frontiers of science and technology (S&T).

A recent United Nations report revealed that population of Pakistan will reach to 366 million by 2050. This 56% increase is one of the largest contributors to global population rise. With dwindling resources of land and water, high inputs cost of energy, fertilizers and pesticides along with looming threats of climate change placed a daunting task of fulfilling food security and SDG2 of Zero hunger by 2030.

There is an immediate need to at least double our productivity in agriculture. This demands adoption and wide applications of new techniques of food production.

The new emerging technologies like Biotechnology, Nanotechnology, AI, IT, drones and Gene Editing changing the landscape of Agriculture. Food Tech is brining revolutionary processes to create alternative sources of nourishment (artificial milk, meat, honey etc.) without further damaging the fragile ecosystem. We will be consuming these at our dining table in the not-so-distant future. Our export of agri-products will only be enhanced if we produce surplus and follow international rules and practices for food safety and traceability.

In order to cope with these gigantic tasks, there is an urgent need of strengthening National Biosafety Center of EPA, Ministry of Climate Change with a strict time frame to make National Regulatory System functional for use of Biotechnology products. It is expected that NBC-EPA of MoCC will resolve this issue on scientific and knowledge-based evidences.

Additionally, a strong“Political Will”, focused attention and allocation of appropriate resources (HR, Financial Infrastructure) are required to make efficient, simpler and workable system to harness immense benefits of new techniques including biotechnology for which a strong base already exist in the country.

Originally published at Business Recorder