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Omissions in the proposed Punjab Seed Act amendment

The Punjab government recently drafted the Punjab Seed (Amendment) Act 2016 to facilitate import of seed for multiple crops by seed companies, apparently to overcome substandard seed and increase per acre yield.

The draft act, initially dubbed the Punjab Seed (Amendment) Act 2016, will be converted into the draft Punjab Seed Bill 2016. It is the offshoot of the Federal Seed Act 2015 following the 18th Amendment.

The new draft has omitted several important sections and clauses of the Federal Seed Act 2015 apparently to provide relief to certain individuals, multinationals and local seed companies for promoting genetically modified seed like GM cotton, GM corn, GM rice, GM vegetables etc.

Firstly the proposed draft omits the most important section — Section 22A — of the Federal Seed Act 2015 which imposes a restriction of registration or enlisting imported plant variety, or hybrid and compulsory adoptability trials at multiple locations in Punjab, Sindh, KP, etc for at least two years within Pakistan to check their performance in local agro-climatic conditions.

Secondly under Section 6 (Functions of Punjab Seed Certification and Registration Department) of the Punjab Seed (Amendment) Act 2016, the clause (a) clearly states ‘controlling the quality of seeds through truth-in labelling (Rules 1991)’.

Agriculture experts fear that by this procedure any individual, breeder or seed company can import GM and non-transgenic seeds, plants and hybrids of any major and minor crop without any testing, evaluation and risk assessment. Such actions can spread unknown diseases and viruses which can be a major threat to agriculture productivity and may cause food insecurity.

Thirdly the draft act omits Section 22D of the federal act which speaks of the registration of seed processing units.

Fourthly, the draft act has also omitted the word ‘Registration’ from the title of Section 22G and replaced it with ‘Enlisting’ because the registration requires any imported GM seed needs to be tested for four years—two years for regulatory trials and as many years for large scale trials—at different locations in the country as prescribed under bio-safety rules and bio-safety guidelines.

Experts say clause (c) of the same section which says ‘field data of two crop season trials in respect of bio-safety and performance as prescribed’ has also been omitted apparently to avoid trials of GM seeds or hybrids to examine its performance. This is done by-passing collection of bio-safety data and risk assessment in local environment as required under the Cartagena Protocol on bio-safety to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

The new draft has omitted several important sections and clauses of the Federal Seed Act 2015 apparently to provide relief to certain individuals, multinationals and local seed companies for promoting genetically modified seed

Fifthly, Section 22-I (constitution of Federal Seed Committee) of Seed Act 2015 has also been eliminated from the draft act which gives powers to seed committees —consisting of representatives of agriculture departments, public and private seed sectors, progressive farmers and any experts— to perform, function and assess imported or local GM seeds and other seed varieties grown in trail fields.

Similarly, Section 22-J (constitution of Variety Evaluation Committee) is also excluded from the provincial draft act. The committee is responsible for evaluating candidate lines, cultivars and varieties of public and private sectors, and imported seed material for disease and the agronomic value of all fields and horticulture crops as prescribed.

Agriculture experts are of the view that the country’s history regarding imported seed implies that untested GM and non-GM seeds can be vulnerable to diseases.

Such seeds may perform well in one region but fail to perform in others, or may spread inherited diseases in certain regions, they add.

Experts further say banana bunchy top virus disease, wheat karnal bunt disease, tomato crop viruses (TMV, TYLCV), and cotton leaf curl Burewala virus are some examples which hit local crops as a result of imported seeds in the last few decades.

They claim there is not a single clause in the seed act which is punishable in case imported/ local seed and hybrid pose health risks to human and animal health or drop crop production per acre.

Experts further say the approval of Truth-in Labelling rules was to facilitate vegetables and minor crop hybrids because their hybrid technology changed fast, but the new draft act has included all seed varieties and hybrid of major crops.

Former director general of Federal Seed Certification and Registration department (FSC&RD) Abdul Rauf Bhutta says the import of GM seed into Pakistan without any trials and enlisting option, instead of the registration process, if vetted by the Punjab government, will open a new controversy in the country and may lead to wiping out the local seed manufacturing industry.

He says initially imported seed with certain certification guarantees (phytosanitary certificate from a recognised institute) go through certain stages of clearance starting from the trial period to approval by FSC&RD, Plant Protection department and Quarantine department before the Customs department allows the entry of such seed in Pakistan.

“Imported seed should be a federal subject because of certification, import, export and environmental control jurisdictions”, he suggested.

Bhutta fears the un-checked entry of imported seed could also deprive KP, Sindh and Balochistan of indigenous varieties Punjab is producing, and catering to around 70pc of their requirements with.

Additional Secretary (Planning), Agriculture department, Dr Ghazanfer Ali Khan, who has drafted the Punjab Seed (Amendment) Act 2016, defends it and says the department is going to prepare the draft bill 2016 after certain consultations with all stake holders. He says a conference will be held shortly to receive the feedback and concern of all stake holders in this regard.

He is of the view that under the draft it has been proposed that there is no need of seed variety approval, registration and certification while registration of seed variety is voluntary.

Khan further says some functions should remain with the centre and some others should be under the control of the province.

According to him it has been proven that seed varieties usually become obsolete because of trials lasting two to three years and new varieties come in place. He adds that leakage of under-trial seeds from trial sites is common.

He says that by removing the approval and registration processes the department intends to allow local and foreign seed companies, besides individuals, to bring their varieties to the department for certain verification and use at their will.

Khan says that the Truth-in Labelling procedure has been retained in the draft for checking the quality of seeds at the point of sale, adding that enlisting without any formalities instead of registration (which is a voluntary option) would promote open competition among local and foreign seed businesses and breeders including those who are dealing in GM and hybrid seeds.

In case of testing if the seed is found to be substandard the department will take action against the importer, he adds.

He says the province could now repeal or amend any federal act in the light of the 18th Amendment and the federal legislative list. The provincial government is only amending it with its own requirements.

The additional secretary dispelled the impression that the imported GM seed of different crops would gradually be phased out of the local industry, saying the government always encourages open competition among individuals and companies.

Source: Dawn

Byline: Faisal Ali Ghuman

December 26, 2016

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