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Commenting on the rapid rise in the import bill of soybean grain in April 2021, BR Research noted that “policymakers can no longer ignore talking about the forbidden s-word in agriculture”. 18 months later, soybean grain imports have finally made it to the news. How did this unknown commodity go from near zero to Pakistan’s 10th largest item on import bill in just six years, and why is it now making headlines?

Soybean is not new to Pakistan. Although the crop is cultivated locally in an area smaller in size than the Islamabad airport, import data reveals that soybean has been imported in various forms since at least the mid-1990s. In fact, soybean-based cooking oil brands are ubiquitous across the country. Surprisingly enough, soybean oil imports have been on a secular decline over the past two decades, falling from 362 thousand metric tons (MT) in 1999 to just 84 thousand MT by 2020. Has soybean cooking oil ceased to be popular with Pakistani consumers?

Not according to a research paper by State Bank. In a special section published earlier this year, SBP noted that soybean is the second largest contributor to local edible oil demand after palm, accounting for approximately 10 percent of local consumption (Fig S1.12). Of the total soybean oil consumed locally, no more than one-third is imported in crude form, while the remainder is extracted after crushing soybean grains.

But according to experts, soybean grains are not the most efficient source of vegetable-based oil. In fact, the same SBP research paper notes that at 18 – 20 percent, the oil yield of soybeans is much lower in comparison to palm, sunflower, and rapeseed (Fig S1.5). What then has helped make soybeans so popular?

Animal feed. At est. 45 percent, the amount of crude protein in soybean meal is the highest among oilseeds, making it the most resource-efficient source for animal feed, specifically protein. In fact, soybeans are such a diverse source of protein for an animal diet that they are used as feed input for dairy, cattle, and poultry as well as in hog farming globally. Consider that at 120 million metric tons (MMT), China is the top processor of soybean oilseeds, which yields 80 MMT of soybean meal, closely followed by the US, EU, Brazil, and India.

Which brings us to why soybeans are making headlines today? Other than India, none of the top 10 soybean-producing countries claim non-GMO cultivation. Until 2014, India was the largest exporter of soybean-based meals (oilcake) to Pakistan, when allegations of haram ingredients in the feed led to a ban on Indian meals. Soon after, a change in duty structure lowered import duty on soybean grains (relative to meals) rendering the import of oilcake uncompetitive altogether. This led to the mushroom rise of grain import by solvent extractors that produce both soybean feed – used by the poultry industry – and edible oil for cooking.

BR Research has already addressed claims of whether GM-based products are harmful for human consumption in an article published earlier this week. For more, read: “Banning nutrition: one GMO at a time, published December 05, 2022). Since then, another concern has been highlighted by those who oppose the import of soybean grain not out of concern for human health, but for the environment.

Environmentalists, especially those who campaign for the protection of indigenous plant and animal varieties, insist that imported grains are exotic to the Pakistani environment, and could be used for cultivation locally. To offset this risk, the Plant Protection Department fumigates imported grains with a toxic chemical called methyl bromide, to ensure that the grain loses its viability for plantation (the proven risks of methyl bromide to both human and environmental health have been discussed in this space earlier). However, it is still theoretically possible that imported soybean grains are stolen and misused for sowing locally, contaminating the purity of local soybean varieties.

But which local soybean varieties? Outside of public sector research institutes such as PARC, Pakistan has virtually nil local soybean cultivation. Total local production stands at less than one thousand tons, which includes that produced in research institutes. In fact, the availability of soybean seeds for commercial cultivation in Pakistan is next to nothing. Compare this to over 2 million metric tons imported by solvent extractors every year. Despite its wild popularity and demand by the poultry value chain, no commercial-minded entrepreneur has considered obtaining imported GM soybean for local cultivation. Why?

According to a US-based scientist of Pakistani origin Aqeel Ahmed, that’s because the imported grains are commercially unviable for cultivation in the local environment. That’s because the offspring grain exported to Pakistan is not the same in its vigor as the originally cultivated parent soybean seed. Thus, the yield from the offspring plant would never come close to that of the parent plant, even if breeding in laboratory conditions were to make reproduction possible. That too, “theoretically”, he emphasizes.

Given the widespread consumption of GMO-based products in Pakistan, the alleged dangers of GMOs to human health are clearly not of primary concern to the Food Security ministry. Nevertheless, if a danger to the purity of local breeds is the main concern, the ministry would be better off consulting scientific experts on the subject.

Given the media scrutiny, halted shipments of soybean have attracted, chances are the federal government will once again take some ad hoc measure to address what is purely a scientific question. Don’t wing it this time; regularize the biotech trade properly, once and for all. For more, read: “Biosafety mess: regularize trade” published on Dec 30, 2019).

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