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‘To eat or not to eat, that is the question,' utters the sly fox, beginning its chase after an ever elusive prey and setting the stage for a classic cartoon's playful antics.

Astonishingly, these very words aptly mirror the far-reaching implications of the recent GMO-related controversy which resulted in an abrupt halt to the soybean imports into Pakistan, at least for the 40 percent of its population who are living below the poverty line as per World Bank's assessment.

As per UNICEF, over 40 percent of Pakistan’s under-five children are stunted, as compared to the South Asian average of 31 percent. Stunting is most closely associated with brain development and physical growth and may render long term mental and physical impacts for the child thereby depriving them of the ability to live a fulfilling life. Pakistan’s score on the World Bank’s Human Capital Index (HCI), which quantifies the contribution of health and education to the productivity of the next generation of workers, is 0.41, much lower than the South Asian average of 0.48 which means that our human capital outcomes are more comparable to those in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has an average HCI value of 0.40. Despite these daunting statistics, the Pakistan Ministry of National Food Security & Research (MNFSR) and the Ministry of Climate Change failed to address the gaps and inconsistencies in the country’s biotechnology policy framework, leading to an abrupt halt in soybean imports in October 2022. The move resulted in dire consequences for the country’s cheapest protein source – the poultry industry.

Starting in around 2000, the local poultry industry had made remarkable investments in its value chain. This was followed, in 2015, by a change in the feed formulation to a corn-soybean diet which resulted in significant gains in the Feed Conversion Ratios (FCR, the ratio of feed consumed and bird weight achieved).

The net impact of these remarkable initiatives was a significant decline in poultry products’ prices in real terms, making chicken meat and eggs the cheapest protein sources in the country. For comparison, a kilo of chicken meat which cost more than a kilo of beef prior to 2000, hovered at less than 40 percent of the cost of beef over the last decade.

The October 2022 decision brought a sad end to the poultry success story, at a time when the country was struggling with historic high food inflation.

Pakistan's history with GMOs is far from one of avoidance. In fact, the nation was an early adopter of biotechnology, positioning itself ahead of many other countries by establishing two pivotal national institutions in 1987, namely the National Center of Excellence in Molecular Biology (NCEMB) at Punjab University in Lahore and the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) in Faisalabad, both operating under the auspices of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC).

Presently, the country boasts a network of 53 research institutes scattered across various universities, actively contributing to the field of biotechnology.

GMOs are alien neither to our farms nor to our food chain. It is estimated that more than 95% of area currently under cultivation for cotton, a pivotal crop for our exports, comprises of genetically modified insect-resistant (Bt) cottonseed varieties.

Use of Bt cotton started in 2005 following its introduction in India in 2002. Around 2-3 million tons of cottonseed produced from these GMO varieties annually is a major cattle feed ingredient and edible oil source in the country. Therefore, milk and beef produced from GMO cottonseed have been part of our food chain since 2005.

It is imperative to recognize that the oilseeds being imported are not intended for cultivation, but for processing only (falling under the more broadly used category of food or feed, or for processing, or FFP). Pakistan has ratified both the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol, which govern the manufacture, import, and storage of genetically modified organisms.

The Cartagena Protocol prescribes a simple approval procedure for FFPs (versus cultivation) based on a multilateral information exchange mechanism. Pakistan also enacted its own Biosafety Rules in 2005, followed by the development of Pakistan Biosafety Guidelines that are subject to rigorous oversight by multiple committees. However, till date the legal framework specific to imports of biotech grains for FFP is still missing.

More than 70 countries from all over the world have either planted or imported biotech crops. Soybeans are among the leading GMO commodities traded globally with a volume of around 160 million tons annually.

China is the largest importer of GMO soybeans, importing more that 100 million tons annually. EU countries, despite historically being the leading opponents of GMOs, are the second largest importer of GMO grains for feed use. Other countries in the list include Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Japan and Mexico, etc.

The World Health Organization (WHO) cautions that 'individual GM foods and their safety should be assessed on a case-by-case basis,' but it concludes that 'GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health.' Current GMO grains in commercial use have been assessed for health safety by institutions like the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

In August 2017, Dr. Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California, Davis, published the results of her study on animal health in the Journal of Animal Science.

The study examined 29 years of livestock productivity and health before and after the introduction of genetically modified crops. This was a study that looked at trillions of pounds of GE (Genetically Engineered) feed and over 100 billion animals. Her team concluded the following:

“Neither recombinant DNA (DNA) nor protein from GE feed crops are reliably detected in the milk, meat and eggs from livestock that have been fed GE feed.”

The intriguing aspect of this discovery lies in the juxtaposition between claims made by GMO opponents, attributing potential health hazards to genetically modified organisms, and the empirical reality that even sophisticated laboratories are not able to discern any substantive differences between food derived from GM and non-GM feed.

As of this writing, a persistent hesitancy lingers within the corridors of relevant authorities, stalling the establishment of a robust legal framework necessary for granting permissions on the importation of GMO grains for Food, Feed, or Processing (FFP) applications, despite the guidance of the Cartagena Protocol, and drawing from recommendations put forth by diverse local scientific bodies and examples from various countries across the globe. It remains to be seen whether affordable chicken will return to the menu for the populace. Regrettably, unlike the whimsical tales of a sly fox in cartoons, the outcome of this real-world food chase is poised to be anything but amusing.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

Comments

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P Let Jan 17, 2024 08:53pm
You find it funny, yeah funny boy. I do not find find it amusing. Your article is crap GMO propaganda lies. Just say No to all GMO crops including cotton GMO. Take care. Bye
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P Let Jan 17, 2024 09:23pm
How your censorship to you coming along? Just say No to GMO crops.
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