BT maize offers viable food security solution


Maize is a major food crop in the country and is grown on over one million hectares. Pakistan might approve the commercial cultivation of biotech (BT) maize in 2011-12, in an attempt to assist maize farmers improve yield and competitiveness in the international market.
This imminent prospect was anticipated in the Brief 42 of Global Status of Commercialised Biotech/GM Crops:2010, which was released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA). A significant development of 2010 was the initiation of large scale fields of BT and HT maize, the brief added. It further states that Pakistan has developed a strong infrastructure as well as research and development (R&D) programmes for crop improvement, particularly for major crops such as wheat, cotton, rice, maize and sugarcane at both federal and provincial levels.
In recent years, the Pakistan Atomic Energy Centre (PAEC) and the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) have invested $17 million by establishing four biotech institutes namely, National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE), Faisalabad: Centre of Excellence in Molecular Biology (CEMB), Lahore: National Institute of Genomics and Advanced Biotechnology (NIGAB), Islamabad; and Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute (ABRI), Faisalabad.
In addition, 26 centres at various agricultural crop institutes and universities in Pakistan have been restructured to undertake tissue culture experiments, crop improvements using marker-assisted selection techniques, DNA testing and GMO detection. With the official release of eight BT cotton varieties and one BT cotton hybrid in 2010, there has been a decisive thrust at both the public and private sector institutes to enhance applications of biotechnology for crop improvement.
BT Maize was planted in 15 countries and became the fourth most dominant crop in the world in 2010. It occupied 10.2 million hectares, which is equivalent to seven percent of the global area cultivated with biotech crops. Various biotech crops including cotton, maize, sugarcane, potato and tomato are in laboratory and field trial stages of the regulatory approval system. In 2010, the National Biosafety Committee (NBC) approved the large scale field trials for cotton including stacked traits of insect resistance and herbicide tolerance which could be released in 2011, subject to regulatory approval.
The brief stated that Pakistan has to feed a burgeoning population with a limited arable land of 22.5 million hectares, equivalent to roughly a quarter of the total land area of 80 million hectares. The agriculture sector continues to play an important role to sustain employment, economic growth, export earnings and serve the nation in terms of self-sufficiency of food.
In 2007, a “Vision 2030” report by the Planning Commission of Pakistan concluded that the emergence of problem after the green revolution involved practical constraints due to pests and diseases, declining water resources and land degradation. These issues coupled with high population growth are posing serious threats to food security and environmental sustainability in the future.
In the past two decades, the country has been facing a lack of investment in better seeds, farming technologies and techniques, water infrastructure and declining availability of water for irrigation purposes. A cursory glance at the agriculture sector shows that the gains made in the previous decades have been primarily due to the performance of the livestock sector which contributes a huge 53 percent to agricultural value-added products, as compared to 47 percent from crop production.
It is extremely imperative to note that five major crops, wheat (40 percent), cotton (23 percent), rice (18 percent), sugarcane (10 percent) and maize (five percent) account for 95 percent of the total crop production in the country and foundation for ensuring food security also relies upon them. Therefore, they require an urgent infusion of technological improvements to overcome the productivity barrier, the brief added.