In May 2014, a Pakistani court directed the national bio-safety committee to suspend issuance of new licences for growing GM crops until there was a proper legislative framework and adequate facilities for testing and screening. It was a long overdue step. Pakistan, along with other South Asian countries, took to GM technology without addressing regulatory issues first.
Neighbouring India saw the illegal sale of GM cotton seeds preceding official approval for commercial cultivation. In 2009, India imposed a moratorium on growing GM brinjal, or eggplant, but in October 2013 Bangladesh became the first South Asian country to approve commercial cultivation of a GM version of the vegetable. GM food crops such as maize, rice and vegetables are now poised to enter the South Asian market on a large scale, either through the efforts of foreign companies or of domestic agricultural research institutes, but regulation remains a thorny issue.
The uncontrolled expansion of GM cultivation, without adequate regulation in place, could lead to widespread contamination of non-GM crops. Similarly, market domination of a few GM strains could wipe out local crop biodiversity and lead to non-sustainable farming systems with grave implications for the economy.
Regulation apart, GM seeds are no panacea for the kind of smallholder agriculture that is typical in South Asia where the majority of farmers have fewer than five hectares of land. It is clear that GM crops should be introduced only after extensive scrutiny and screening to protect the livelihoods of millions of small South Asian farmers. There is a strong need for reform and revision of regulatory frameworks that address the interests of smallholder agriculture and not just those of private companies.
Pakistan's experience with Bt cotton
Since 2008 Pakistan has been growing Monsanto's genetically modified Bt cotton (cotton with a gene from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis to fight the bollworm pest) in over 80 per cent of its 2.5 million acres cotton-growing area in Sind and Punjab provinces. GM maize is in the pipeline, though no varieties have yet been released, and the fate of those 14 applications pending approval for release is unclear in the light of the recent court order.
What, however, goes under the clearance radar are GM seeds of flowers and vegetables and even trees, imported surreptitiously by several private farmers. These are difficult to identify in the absence of adequate testing and labelling infrastructure and also because quarantine check posts at airports are seldom effective.
Pakistan has had mixed experience with GM cotton. Despite its aggressive promotion by both private companies and some scientists from the country's public-funded crop and biotechnology institutes, small farmers have not been able to reap anything like the promised 50 per cent rise in yields.
“GM crops should be introduced only after extensive scrutiny and screening to protect the livelihoods of millions of small South Asian farmers.”
Farmers’ dependence has increased: fresh GM seeds need to be bought each year and these require higher quantities of fertiliser, pesticide and water. When Bt cotton was informally introduced in 2002 by some progressive farmers and private seed vendors, cotton yields improved, peaking at 5,500 kilograms per hectare by 2007. But since then yields have declined gradually to 2,400 kilograms per hectare by 2013.
Small farmers at a disadvantage
Small farmers who are the main cotton growers complain that these seeds perform only at high levels of input — more water due to a longer growing period, fertilisers, and pesticides to fight pests other than the bollworm — often beyond their reach. The overall increased cost of Bt cotton production often forces small farmers to opt for other crops or leave land fallow. An International Food Policy Research Institute study  confirms that profitability is significantly lower on smaller farms compared to large farms, when farmers do not have access to the latest knowhow and, are unable to hedge and insure against crop losses.
Also, they lack the literacy or knowhow to understand complex crop management issues and strategies such as the need to maintain a healthy pest balance and the risks and consequences of not doing so when grown on a large scale.
The emergence of numerous untested Bt varieties that were imported from India and through other international companies in the market pose a problem of choice for small farmers who are often swayed by slick advertising. They are at the mercy of seed vendors who often recommend seeds with an eye to increasing profit margins.
Adding to the woes of small farmers is the emergence of new pests such as mealy bug, sucking insects and cotton leaf curl virus. Farmers in southern Punjab and Sindh, for example, complain of negative impact of cotton on water availability and soil fertility and increased pest control costs.
Pakistan could learn from neighbouring India's experience where farmers now grow second-generation Bt cotton, following bollworm resistance to first generation seeds. Sometimes, GM cotton may not provide all the answers to pest resistance, and traditionally bred varieties have a role.
Test and regulate
Pakistan has several facilities for molecular genetics, but it lacks the required protocols for GM testing, government investment is low and currently at around US$0.75 million. Compared to that, the annual volume of cotton seed industry is around US$40 million.
Government needs to take steps to put a regulatory framework in place, which takes cognizance of long term implications of GM crops on productivity, profitability, resource use, food security and equity.
Labelling and advertising should be sensitive to farmers' literacy and understanding levels. Information on risks associated with GM seeds such as impacts on neighbouring crops, seed sterility and performance under extreme drought or rainy conditions should be provided in symbolic and easily understood visuals.
Most importantly, South Asian countries need to open up the debate on GM technology to ensure sustainable agriculture and the welfare of the majority of farmers should be protected with policies that are based on the best science evidence.
Pervaiz Amir, based in Islamabad, is a regional expert for the Global Water Partnership and former member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change. He is on the technical advisory panel of the Ministry of Environment, and Chair for Futuristic Innovation in Agriculture for the Ministry of Science and Technology in Pakistan.
This opinion has been produced by SciDev.Net's South Asia desk for SciDev.Net's global debate: What's wrong with GM?, taking place on Wednesday 11 June at 11.00-13.00 (BST).