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Making Pakistan food secure

By : Professor Dr. Shahida Wizarat

It is quite ironic that Pakistan basically an agricultural country producing more than one fifth of its output from agriculture and a little less than half of its population working in agriculture should be food insecure. From 2006-07 onwards growth in the agricultural sector started declining. The decline continued till 2012-13, in spite of substantial increase in support prices of agricultural products in 2008 by the Government. Violent fluctuations in the production of five major crops occurred during the period 2003-4 to 20012-13. A high rate of growth in one year was followed by a negative growth rate in the following year. And the same pattern was repeated later.

These fluctuating growth rates of major crops reflects the following: One, that Pakistan’s agriculture is totally at the mercy of the weather. Second, that the high support prices of agricultural crops announced in 2008 did nothing to boost agricultural growth. Third, it shows that Pakistan’s economy is poorly managed.

The Seed Act 1976 passed during the tenure of Pakistan Peoples Party in the 1970s was recently amended by the National Assembly in March 2015 and by the Senate in June 2015. This is in spite the fact that a lot of concerns are being raised about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). These concerns are on account of the fact that they reduce nutrient content in foods.

They also increase allergic reactions, resulting in the production of harmful proteins. GMO foods increase cancer and cause Horizontal Gene Transfer between modified organisms and human bacteria. French scientists led by Gilles-Eric Seralini at the University of Caen in Normandy conducted a study published in Food and Chemical Toxicology revealing that 50-80 percent of female rodents developed tumors in all the groups, while male rodents suffered from liver damage, kidney problems, indigestion and skin tumors when they consumed NK603 for 24 months. With increase in the import of GM food items like lentils and vegetables from Australia, Canada and India there has been a tremendous increase in cancer in Pakistan. European Union has banned GMOs. Recently China refused to allow Bt corn imported from USA to enter the Chinese market. There are reports that WWF is growing organic crops in Pakistan for Western consumers. While Canada is growing GM crops for aid/ export to less developed countries but has banned their sale in Canada. Consumption of these products in Canada will be considered only after surveys have been conducted to quantify increases in serious illnesses in countries consuming GM crops exported/donated by Canada and other rich countries.

In addition to the impact of GMOs on health, they have serious adverse impacts on the economy as well. Seeds from GM crops can not be used for sowing and fresh seeds have to be imported for each crop, which increases foreign exchange requirements resulting in increase in the trade deficit. While natural seeds which are healthier do not use up foreign exchange, GM seeds which have adverse impacts on our health and the environment need foreign exchange for every crop that has to be sown. Through increased fertilizer and herbicide use, they increase the cost of production of crops, causing increase in prices of food crops, rise in the rate of inflation thus making the country food insecure. Moreover, the absence of a Labeling Law which would inform consumers that the food they are purchasing is GM or otherwise ensures that consumers developing diseases as a result of

consuming these foods will not be able to take legal action against chemical cos and countries selling these seeds and crops to Pakistani consumers. Recent amendments to the Seed Act 1976 by the National Assembly and the Senate without any debate on the pros and cons of GMOs shows the lack of interest of elected representatives in this very vital issue which has grave consequences on health, environment, farmers well being, economy and food security of the country. Although the People’s Party in whose earlier tenure the Seed Act was passed in 1976 did not take ownership of the Act or resist attempts to make amendments to it.

The PML-N’s patriotic face has been totally smashed as a result of its commitment to bringing about amendments in the Seed Act as revealed by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s budget speech on the floor of the House during the budget session. The PTI which has always tried to present itself as a party upholding the interests of the country and the common man also stands exposed. The MQM, the religious parties, who draw their support from lower middle classes were also not interested in an issue of such grave importance to the common man.

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 large amounts of water which is already scarce in Pakistan. It also does not use up the country’s foreign exchange earnings. Organic farming would therefore not only be cheaper, but a more healthy alternative as well. If the government is sincere about making Pakistan food secure it should give 5 to 7 acres of hitherto uncultivated land to landless peasants in areas where water is not a serious problem. Small loans from commercial banks can take care of seed, natural manures and natural insecticides. Produce of such organic farms should be for the home market in Pakistan and not for export. This would be a far more effective way to make the country food secure.

If, however, the government continues to ignore such serious threats to the people of Pakistan and the country, then the people of Pakistan must remember that people’s power is stronger than government power. The government can continue to flood the market with contaminated seeds and commodities, but if people do not buy these products there is no way they can be forced. If consumers decide not to purchase the polluted products imported from abroad or grown by sowing GM seeds how do they meet their consumption needs? One way would be through developing an alternative market for organic foods. Importers can try to tap organic growers and import their products for consumption in Pakistan. But this will cater to the needs of the more affluent classes who can afford to buy imported products.

What about the common men and women, how will they meet their needs? Kitchen gardens can provide a solution. People can grow vegetables and fruits in the spare space in their homes, in pots and tubs and exchange these with their neighbors and friends. People are already growing vegetables in their kitchen gardens, we only need to expand the scale of these operations!.

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