Once upon a time, until about a century ago in the west, and about 50 years ago in Pakistan, there was only one kind of farming. There was no traditional farming or modern farming, no monoculture or polyculture, no chemical agriculture or organic agriculture, no natural agriculture or ‘sustainable’ agriculture.
There was just one kind of farming, whether small-scale or large. It existed for 10-15,000 years ever since settled agriculture came into being. It enriched the British, European and American colonizers for hundreds of years, and rebuilt the economies of countries that regained independence. So why did GM seeds come on the scene? Were they even necessary?
Once corporations had succeeded in discouraging farmers from saving their own seed – killing the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of women seed-savers the world over — and settle for commercially-produced poorly-reproducing hybrids, thereby creating a vast new source of making huge money, they then sought to mop up the entire global market. Highly-paid agricultural scientists, full of themselves, were conditioned in the belief they could not only improve on nature but life itself by manipulating genes. They started with crops.
Notwithstanding the high-sounding corporate claims of wanting to feed the world, the objective was not a magnanimous one. They had succeeded in cornering the world market of large-scale agro-businesses that were owned not by farmers who tilled with their own hands, but by investors. Now they wanted that the world’s remaining farmlands, medium, small and tiny, to use only multinational seeds and chemicals. What could be a bigger market than all growers of the world, including captive peasants?
Genetic engineering (GE) or genetic modification (GM) is the artificial introduction of a gene of one species into another totally unrelated species. This is impossible in Nature and is therefore considered unnatural. Nature was designed such that unrelated species cannot propagate. That’s how each species remains unique – humans, different kinds of birds, animals, insects, flowers, fish, trees and so on, and makes the world so diverse and captivating. When nature has been around for billions of years, evolving varieties within the same species by the hundreds or thousands (30,000 varieties of rice in South Asia alone!), if there were any possibility of more variety, Nature would have already developed it, or already in the process.
Genetic engineers knew this so they thought of another way to be unique.— Sticking an alien gene or two into a species where they didn’t belong. The liberties they have taken without anyone’s permission has been an assault on the integrity of all life forms. These are then patented for their exclusive profits. — By creating unnecessary and high-priced dependency on corporate seeds and chemicals.
But fish, insect or animal or human genes in crops? Would one knowingly eat the outcome? And genes interchanged between humans and animals? What about the ethical and religious aspects? The experiments have been going on for a long time, and the consequences of many are hard to stomach.
As Dr. Mae-Won Ho, senior scientist and Director of the Institute of Science in Society, UK and Editor of Science in Society, chillingly makes clear: “GM breaks all the rules of evolution, it short circuits evolution altogether. It bypasses reproduction, creates new genes and gene combinations that have never existed, and is not restricted by the usual barriers between species. Evolution happened over billions of years, each species has its own space and time on the evolutionary stage, they didn’t all evolve at once, so gene exchange between different species were restricted by space and time as well as by biological barriers.”
Taking on the government at any level is no easy task in most countries, least of all in Pakistan. Already, GM cotton was being illegally grown here, but non-farming society was largely unaware. Then suddenly, earlier this year, the authority responsible for regulating GMOs in Pakistan was about to deliberate the approval of some GM crops, specifically Bt cotton.
Mr. Rafay Alam, environmental lawyer, filed a public interest case in the Lahore High Court on behalf of two women’s NGOs — Shirkat Gah, working in women’s development, and PAVHNA, working in women’s health services.
The process by which GMOs were to be assessed for risk before being released into the environment had been flawed, with many of the applications not meeting the criteria for testing and screening. On the contrary, standards had been lowered!
The two women’s NGOs called for the stoppage of GM crops, specifically Bt cotton, which today, by the government’s own admission, covers 85 percent of Pakistan’s cotton acreages. Bt cotton was approved for the first and only time in Pakistan in 2010. However, it is well known that Bt seeds were smuggled in or brought in by private parties as early as 2005. Then why didn’t concerned authorities destroy any of the unapproved crops or penalize those responsible? Obviously because they were much too privileged or had powerful protection.
The petition was filed before the Lahore High Court on 12 March 2014, the date the GMO licences were to be deliberated. Contrary to expectations, the Court disposed of the matter at first hearing, directing that a copy of the petition be forwarded to relevant officials in the Federal Government.
The NGOs then went into appeal before a two-member Bench of the High Court. Unfortunately, the appellate Bench was unable to take the matter up on merits due to the manner in which the case had been disposed of by the single judge of the High Court.
The GMO approving authority met on 12 March 2014 and apparently passed some orders, unilaterally, granting licenses to Bt cotton and GM corn varieties.
Since the case had changed from stopping a meeting to now challenging the decisions of the meeting, the Kisan Board, a farmer’s organization, kept the issue alive by filing a new public interest case in the same Lahore High Court through Mr. Rafay Alam. This time, however, counsel for the petitioner specifically requested the matter be heard by a ‘green bench’ of the High Court which had been created a couple of years earlier to hear cases related to environmental issues.
The petition came up the second time before Mr. Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, the Honourable “green bench” of the Lahore High Court. On 12 May 2014, Mr. Justice Shah ordered the federal government – specifically the National Bio-Safety Committee (NBC) — to desist from issuing licenses for GM crops until a proper legal framework was
set in place that could reliably assess GMOs which are a new entry into Pakistan agriculture.
One can only wonder how the involved parties – at least a dozen governmental institutions and departments and all the GM-growing farmers involved – got away with so much for so long, given that the regulatory institutions that should have been set up in the first place do not even exist — no strong and independent regulatory system, no trained technical staff, and no fully-equipped up-to-date laboratories to analyze GMOs. Why is government on the side of GMOs and GM corporations anyway when they clearly go against food security, biodiversity, livelihoods, and the public interest?
The LHC decision was a victory, but it’s too early to celebrate. Stakeholders have obtained some breathing space to prepare for the next stage of confrontations. —Because, there’s another loophole that the GM seed companies are certain to exploit. The struggle for reclaiming our indigenous agricultural resources for our own people has only just begun.
The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.