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Food security challenges: use of biotechnology will enhance Pakistani farmers` productivity: experts

The application of biotechnology by Pakistani farmers would not only result in enhancing productivity but would also help in addressing food security challenges faced by the country, according to biotech experts here. Research estimates show that the United States earned over $44 billion worth of revenues by utilising this technology which not only enhanced the crop yields but also saved them from damage caused by worms, they said.

According to these experts, with the rising concerns of the world about possible food shortages as well as declining farm output, the fast-track adoption of biotech crops is under serious consideration around the world, especially in the Third World countries where multiple problems have caused low farm output.

In the wake of increasing world population, decreasing arable land per capita, and lower growth in grain yields, one of the biggest concerns of world is the spiralling food prices and declining farm output for which billions of dollars are injected by international food and agriculture programs to improve the agriculture productivity through, for example, deployment of crop biotechnology, storing, threshing, and harvesting technologies.

The concern is not baseless as international researches are warning that if agriculture technologies are not bolstered, world food prices would continue to rise. Especially, world prices of corn, soybean, and canola will increase 5.8 percent1 9.6 percent, and 3.8 percent respectively over 2007 level, if the biotech crops are not available to farmers, notes a working paper published in January by Centre for Agriculture and Rural Development, Iowa State University.

And, despite additional planting of three crops, there would be a net fall of 14 million tons in their global production, it estimates. According to the paper, net production of other crops, including grain and oilseeds, would likely decline due to inadaptability to biotech traits.

The country achieved the target of 12.7 million bales of cotton, but Aptma and Prgmea want around I5 million bales as country`s readymade garments and spinning sectors have recorded steep rise in their exports respectively. According to some estimates, the Bt cotton seeds are being sown in around 60 to 70 percent of the area, but the Bt cotton seeds are smuggled, unapproved and do not have any scientific track record of good yield; thus instead of recording any rise in cotton production the country is witnessing the same farm output.

These unauthorised seeds may even develop diseases & pests, which would have resistance against toxins & insecticides. With the signs of an agreement between Pakistan government and Monsanto there are some chances that this agreement can help achieving the task of providing quality seeds to farmers which, in turn, could lead to better yields and bring latest technology to the country and enable the government to monitor the whole process from sowing to harvesting, officially.

Agriculture sector is the mainstay of Pakistan`s economy. However, the sector is not contributing to the economy in line with its real potential. All major crops in the country have low productivity because of inputs mismanagement. Application of biotechnology on agriculture sector and genetically modified crops can increase the agriculture outputs manifold.

This technology has added 47 million tons to total corn production in 25 countries. Since widespread application of biotechnology in 1996, global biotech acreage shot 74-fold to 125 million hectares in 2008, owing to growing concern for biodiversity and food security with Unites States a leading user of biotech in agriculture production, the paper says.

The importance of biotechnology was realised in Pakistan back in 1960 when genetics engineering was emerging as a recognised science of developing high yield seeds and efficient plants in some Far East countries. The government of Pakistan established National Commission on Biotechnology in 2001 to provide technical assistance and information resources to professionals and biotechnology institutes in the country.

Application of substandard and uncertified Bt cotton seed is also responsible for counterproductive result of biotechnology, nation-wide. CLCV has been a serious threat to cotton crop since 1987. According to an estimate, the virus had caused a loss of 543,294 bales of cotton with infested area estimated at 97,580 hectares during 1992-93.

The world over, total GM crops cultivated area in 2008 was 120 million hectares, compared with 80 million hectares in 2004, and 10 million hectares in 1997, with four main GM crops--rapeseed, cotton, maize and soybean. The number of farmers growing GM crops around the world was around 13 million in 2008.

The benefits of the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) food crops, developed from the biotechnology, are the reduced environmental impact from pesticides; reduced human pesticide poisonings; increased yields; decreased crop losses; lower cost of production; and reduced pesticide residues on food.

The problem of weeds in soybean, corn, and canola can be controlled with biotech. Usage of herbicide tolerant technology can not only weed out the problem, but it can also shorten soybean production cycle since farmers can plant herbicide soybean after wheat crop in the same growing season with high yields per acre, as per the international research.

The paper finds no impact of low prices of genetically modified agriculture outputs on farmers since, according to it, cost saving biotech would compensate lower prices. It was said that productivity enhancing biotech could decrease prices at the ost of income of farmers. In contrast, adoption of biotech traits would rather jack up income of farmers while delivering

low-priced foods to consumers. `The direct farm income gain identified from adoption of biotech traits over the period 1996-2006 was recorded at $33.8 billion,` mentions the working paper.

The government needs to initiate the fast-track moves on biotechnology front and learn from the experiences of farmers in China and India who earned more than $9.80 billion by producing the genetically modified (GM) crops from 1996-2007 that gave more yield than the conventional crops.

Salinity and waterlogging are two ominous problems of agriculture sector in Pakistan, making fertile lands uncultivated and scaling down crop production. A local research says that the country loses over 30 percent of its agriculture roductivity to waterlogging and salinity.

Global food shortage, due to both unprecedented increases in demand and supply deficiencies, has equally opened up an opportunity for agro-based economies. Dearth of modern technology and mechanisation are prime culprits of low crop yields in Pakistan. Agriculture produce may be bartered with technology of collaborating countries.

These exchanges will build agriculture sector of the country on sustainable basis and contribute in global food safety.

International agriculture experts and researches inculpate climate change for bringing down crop yields, and recommend biological research and use of commercial hybrid seeds that reduce consumption of water and other inputs for agriculture production, and improve crop yields.

Biotechnology can help substantially increase the crops production, and there is the example of the United States that earned approximately 70 billion dollars in 2008 alone from the major GM crops like corn, soybean, and cotton. The revenues earned from GM crops in the United States were only$44 billion in 2006, which rose to hefty $70 billion in 2008, experts said.

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