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Why it is vital for Pakistan?

Biotechnology is making it possible for researchers and developers to deliver products that help farmers protect their crops; and improve the economy and environment while they grow grains that improve the quality of the food we eat.

For thousands of years, people have used biotechnology to produce foods such as cheese and bread with bacteria and yeast. The genetic manipulation of both animals and plants started in early prehistory. Archaeological findings and suggestions from ancient writings support the view that there were rudimentary agricultural crops at least some 7,000 to 9,000 years ago, in the hills between Iran and north-western Iraq, from where they spread to the valleys between the Tigris and Euphrates. In fact, all the plants now grown had started from ancient wild relatives. Similarly, all the domesticated animals came from the genetic modification of their wild ancestors. A tremendous amount of plant science data reveals natural crossings between species and even spontaneous mutations. It is also known that new species arise from these natural hybridizations and mutations.

Since the discovery of DNA, the most important advance in Genetics has been the discovery of the restriction enzymes in 1972, which allowed DNA to be cut at specific sites and then put back together. Next came the discovery of polymerize chain reaction (PCR), which allowed fragments of DNA to multiply. The identification of specific DNA genes for desirable traits, and the transfer of those genes into another organism constitute genetic engineering. The gene transfer involves the use of a vector carrier, which can be a plasmid or a virus. The full potential of genetic engineering is still unknown and the results so far achieved are only the beginning. Such breeding methods largely accounted for the phenomenal gains in productivity during the 20th century.


Market Scenario
Although the first genetically modified (GM) plant, an antibiotic-resistant tobacco, was developed in 1983, but the growth of crops derived through agricultural biotechnology has exploded since introduction of the first major GM crop in 1996. Monsanto, which launched the first major genetically modified crop in 1996 with Roundup Ready soybeans (glyphosphate-tolerant). Since then the global market for GM/transgenic crop products grew rapidly from 1995 to 1999. Global sales were estimated at $75 million in 1995, reaching $1.6 billion in 1998, and increased to an estimated $2.1-2.3 billion in 1999, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA). The global market for the GM crops is projected to reach approximately $8bn in 2005 and $25bn in 2010.

Between 1996 and 1999, 12 countries contributed to more than a twenty-fold increase in the global area of the GM crops, according to ISAAA. In 1999, the global area of GM crops increased by 44 per cent or 12.1 million hectares from 27.8 million hectares in 1998 to 39.9 million hectares, according to ISAAA.


The world population has topped 6 billion people and it is predicted to double in the next 50 years. Ensuring an adequate food supply for this booming population is going to be a major challenge in the years to come. GM foods promise to meet this need in a number of ways:

Pest resistance: Crop losses from insect pests can be staggering, resulting in devastating financial loss for farmers and starvation in developing countries. Farmers typically use many tons of chemical pesticides annually. Consumers do not wish to eat food that has been treated with pesticides because of potential health hazards, and run-off of agricultural wastes from excessive use of pesticides and fertilizers can poison the water supply and cause harm to the environment. Growing GM foods such as Bt-cotton and Bt-corn can help eliminate the application of chemical pesticides and reduce the cost of bringing a crop to market. Pakistani farmers spend billions of rupees on pesticides and fertilizers each year. But by saving costs of fertilizers and pesticides this technology can improve the quality of our farmer life style and the environment.

Herbicide tolerance: For some crops, it is not cost-effective to remove weeds by physical means such as tilling, so farmers will often spray large quantities of different herbicides to destroy weeds, a time-consuming and expensive process, that requires care so that the herbicide doesn't harm the crop plant or the environment. Crop plants genetically engineered to be resistant to one very powerful herbicide could help prevent environmental damage by reducing the amount of herbicides needed. For example, Monsanto has created a strain of soybeans genetically modified not to be affected by their herbicide product Roundup. A farmer grows these soybeans, which then only require one application of weed-killer instead of multiple applications, reducing production cost and limiting the dangers of agricultural waste run-off.

Disease resistance: There are many viruses, fungi and bacteria, which cause plant diseases. Plant biologists are working to create plants with genetically engineered resistance to these diseases.

Cold tolerance: Unexpected frost can destroy sensitive seedlings. An antifreeze gene from cold-water fish has been introduced into plants such as tobacco, potato and strawberries. With this antifreeze gene, these plants are able to tolerate cold temperatures that normally would kill unmodified seedlings

Drought/salinity tolerance: As the world population grows and more land is utilized for housing instead of food production, farmers need to grow crops in locations previously unsuited for plant cultivation. Creating plants that can withstand long periods of drought or high salt content in soil and groundwater help people to grow crops in formerly inhospitable places. Hence, GM is one method to address our current drought situation, which has a declined growth rate of our agriculture sector from 6 per cent to - 2 per cent in the year 2000-01, while it has rigorously affected our GDP, by bring it to level 2.5 this year.

Nutrition malnutrition: It is common in Third World countries, such as Pakistan, to find impoverished people relying on a single crop such as rice, wheat for the main staple of their diet. However, rice does not contain adequate amounts of all necessary nutrients to prevent malnutrition. If rice could be genetically engineered to contain additional vitamins and minerals, nutrient deficiencies could be alleviated. For example, blindness due to vitamin A deficiency is a common problem in third world countries. Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Institute for Plant Sciences have created a strain of "golden" rice containing an unusually high content of beta-carotene (vitamin A). Since this rice was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, a non-profit organization, the Institute hopes to offer the golden rice seed free to any third world country that requests. Plans are underway to develop "golden" rice, which also has increased iron content.

Pharmaceuticals and vaccines: These are often produced costly, and sometimes require special storage conditions not readily available in third world countries. Researchers are working to develop edible vaccines like ' hepatitis-B' in tomatoes and potatoes. These vaccines will be much cheaper, easier to ship, store and administer than traditional injectable vaccines.

Phytoremediation: Not all GM plants are grown as crops. Soil and groundwater pollution continues to be a problem in all parts of the world. Plants such as poplar trees have been genetically engineered to clean up heavy metal pollution from contaminated soil.

GM Livestock
Transgenic animals are designed to help diagnose and treat human diseases. Several companies have already designed such products, and are now running tests on transgenic mammals that produce important pharmaceuticals in the animal's milk. Products such as insulin, growth hormone, and tissue plasminogen activator that are currently produced by fermentation of transgenic bacteria may soon be obtained from the milk of transgenic cows, sheep, or goats. Pakistan has large number of cattle, therefore, we can benefit from it if we adopt GM technology and conduct research in transgenic animals.


Biotechnology is making it possible for researchers and developers to deliver products that help farmers protect their crops; and improve the economy and environment while grow grains that improve the quality of the food we eat. Biotechnology will enhance quality of life in many ways, while helping the environment by reducing our dependence on non-renewable resources. But that's just the beginning. We have to understand the importance GM and its role and influence on our future growth, health and environment.

By Ijaz Ahmad Rao 


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