How did all this happen? Easily. By steady, unrelenting persuasion by a chemical-cum-GM seed multinational sitting around in Pakistan the past 15 years, seemingly twiddling its thumbs.

Starting in America, nothing happened by accident but by a well thought-out master plan; a mix of debased and oversimplified science, wartime chemical poisons, appropriation of public research and development facilities, the patenting of life-forms previously forbidden, corruption or silencing of academia, even the judiciary, and the use of mass media to create acceptance of GM products and suppress opposition. There, highly-paid professional lobbying is legal (as is corporate contributions to presidential and congressional candidates).

In Indonesia, Monsanto was caught red-handed for massive bribery and thrown out; even fined by the US government. The resistance, legal actions and crop disasters around the world would fill an encyclopedia. Several countries have imposed moratoriums.

In India, small farmers were deceived and devastated – because Bt farming is not only prohibitively expensive, but also death-dealing, luring farmers into dependency and debt by false advertising and promises.

Monsanto learned a lesson. So, in Pakistan, there was no advertising, no inviting unwanted attention to themselves. Besides, a 2008 letter from the Monsanto Country Head, Mr. Aamir Mahmood Mirza, to the government, admitted they had no patents in Pakistan on what they were offering, which they referred to as “insect-resistant technologies.”

Powerful landlords, both inside and outside government, were provided or encouraged to obtain Bt seeds from USA, China, India, and Australia. Native farmers copycatted them. No one objected; no one stopped them.    

Since negative consequences wouldn’t be apparent for some years, it was easy to persuade scientists to insert alien genes into local seeds. That way GM performance would be proved in ‘local varieties’. But in case anything went wrong, our farmers or authorities could be blamed. By then, corporations will replace failed seeds with a new Bt variety after switching a gene or two. With indigenous diversity wiped out by contamination, multinationals could take over easily.

In 2005, Pakistan approved only Biosafety Guidelines. There was still no Biosafety Law in 2010 when trials of 8 Bt cotton seed varieties and a Bt Hybrid cotton began. Yet National Institute for Biotechnology (NIBGE) and Genetic Engineering (PAEC) sold 40,000 kg of basic Bt cotton from PAEC-related facilities to 10 companies for sale and multiplication. But no one dared challenge Dr. Kausar Abdullah Malik of PAEC, when he announced a so-called “Voluntary Code of Conduct” for purchasing companies of GM seeds. No one knows who authorized him.

Field trials were designed and approved by scientists and regulators. The minutes of both National Biosafety Committee and Punjab Seed Council repeatedly downgraded Bt crops for low toxin, poor quality, etc. Yet they were approved !  Later the media reported the proliferation of 72 Bt cotton varieties in Punjab and Sindh. But NBC had no capacity to check. The Economy Survey of Pakistan 2009-10 found Bt overwhelming most areas.   

More ‘new’ Bt cotton varieties are about to be given blanket permission for commercialization all over Pakistan. Such official approval from government research and regulatory bodies is granted only after long-term field trials, tested at every step, including impact on environment, wildlife and human health, the outcome shared with the unsuspecting public that pays for it. No one asked citizens whether they want genetic modification in their lives.

It wasn’t possible. Because there’s no lab and no trained staff at the NBC, just three or four administrative personnel holed up in two small rooms. All staff is hired on 6-month contract basis.

They receive a laughable Rs.1600 as daily allowance (it was Rs.600 earlier) to monitor and evaluate the progress of Bt crops under the Biosafety Guidelines at trial locations over the entire country. They however cannot make more than two visits in one season (during sowing and harvesting), although there’s a need for at least 4. In fact, there hasn’t been a single visit since 2010! They cannot verify the biosafety or other data foisted on them. They simply relay all recorded data of the multinational seed-chemical corporation’s own hired staff at trial locations. There is constant pressure on powerless staff to do the bidding of government research institutes or multinationals or some ministry to go beyond the law to facilitate them.  

The project ‘National Biosafety Centre’ was established in 2006 as a project for regulation of GMOs in the country. It ends in a few months, June 2014. If the approval of cases is to be ongoing, who will see to this? Some more meaningless rubber stamps? The minutes of the last 18 meetings of the Technical Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Climate Change speak for themselves.

If GM crops did not affect other natural crops, co-existence would have been possible. Unfortunately, GM crops, by inherent nature, are like contagious diseases without a cure. They contaminate; their modified genes spread to other crops of their kind affecting their genetic makeup. They lose their uniqueness as a species and die out. As monoculture spreads contamination like wildfire, mile after mile, season after season, indigenous varieties go extinct. The entire plant saturated by toxic Bt and pesticides, is rendered poisonous. Cottonseed oil is no longer safe for consumption. In India, over 1800 sheep died after grazing on crop-waste, the practice of which had to be stopped. The chemical poisoning of women cotton-pickers leading to incurable diseases continues to soar.

A Faisalabad Agricultural University report circulated by Dr. Khalid Abdullah, Cotton Commissioner, Ministry of Textiles, states that the Bt acreage was 78% in 2008-9. It must be at least 80% today.

A repeat of India’s horrible experience now threatens us. By illegitimately patenting an existing plant which Monsanto could never invent or create from scratch, it has taken monopolistic control over seeds, to collect rent and royalties indefinitely. In 1988 the World Bank bullied India into deregulating its seed sector and eliminating government-backed subsidies and loans to farmers. To eerily quote eminent scientist-activist Dr. Vandana Shiva:

“Five things changed with Monsanto’s entry: First, Indian companies were locked into joint-ventures and licensing arrangements, and concentration over the seed sector increased. Second, seed which had been the farmers’ common resource became the “intellectual property” of Monsanto, for which it started collecting royalties, thus raising the costs of seed. Third, open pollinated cotton seeds were displaced by hybrids, including GMO hybrids. A renewable resource became a non-renewable, patented commodity. Fourth, cotton which had earlier been grown as a mixture with food crops now had to be grown as a monoculture, with higher vulnerability to pests, disease, drought and crop failure. Fifth, Monsanto started to subvert India’s regulatory processes and, in fact, started to use public resources to push its non-renewable hybrids and GMOs through so-called public-private partnerships (PPP).”

GM seeds cost ten times what traditional seeds do. In India, with $15, you can choose between 100 grams of GM cost or 1000 grams of natural seeds. Since then there have been over 200,000 farmer suicides. After the damning 2012 report of India’s parliamentary technical committee on Bt crops appointed by the Supreme Court, a 10-year moratorium was imposed on all GMOs and all trials terminated.

But the damage was already done. No one knows if and when there’ll be recovery. 95 per cent of India’s cotton seed is now controlled by Monsanto. Uncontrollable superpests and superweeds choke farmfields.

Unless the shrinking numbers of farmers growing indigenous cotton are able to hold out – of which chances look dim – Pakistan’s famed white gold will become a memory, swelling the ranks of lost livelihoods in millions and global biodiversity loss which is already crossing 75 percent.

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at  Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.