Is the ban on GMO soybeans a blessing in disguise?



ISLAMABAD:

Poultry is emerging to be the largest consumer industry in Pakistan with a total annual production of 1.94 million tonnes, produced in over 15,000 established poultry farms. This sector currently provides employment to over 1.5 million people across the country.

Poultry also offers the citizens a comparatively cheaper source of protein, as mutton and beef have now gone beyond the buying power of common man. It is also the best source of bioavailable proteins, as it contains all necessary dietary-essential amino acids when compared to plant-based diets.

Soybean meal (SBM) is a major protein source in poultry feeds and one of the best quality ingredients. Due to a relatively good amino acid profile, SMB is usually used to balance the dietary amino acid levels with cereal grains, and their by-products, in poultry feeds. Soybean seeds contain 40–42% protein, 20–22% oil contents and 20–30% carbohydrates, along with numerous other essential vitamins and minerals. They have also been dubbed a ‘miracle crop’ and potential food security crop.

Animal-based foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy) tend to be good sources of complete protein. That being said, their price and consistent availability does create issues of affordability and supply for consumers.

Soybeans are mostly imported and most of them are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) that also attract objections from various stakeholders. Pakistan Biosafety Rules, 2005, asks for the mandatory registration of GMOs and Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) with the National Biosafety Council (NBC). The registration process involves detailed scrutiny of the GMO or LMO based products, including human health aspects. Accordingly, the associated threats or benefits to our region will be fully revealed once these products undergo a scientific review. Pakistan imported 2.5 million tonnes of soybean in 2021, costing $1 billion in foreign exchange.

The Minister for National Food Security and Research (MNFSR), Tariq Bashir Cheema has raised serious objections to the use of GMO soybean in poultry feed, terming it unsafe for human consumption due to its cancerous impact. The biggest health risks associated with the GMO soybean are the transfer of antibiotic resistance, toxicity and allergenicity. There have been several incidents of allergic reactions as well.

According to the September 2016 review published in Food Science and Human Wellness, GMO soybeans enriched with methionine, an amino acid from Brazilian nuts, can cause allergic reactions in people with nut allergies. In addition to being less nutritious, GMO soybeans also contain significant levels of glyphosate (the herbicide used on roundup ready crops) and Aminomethyphosphonicacid (AMPA). AMPA, the chemical compound that glyphosate breaks down into, is even more toxic than glyphosate. The most common side effects are digestive upsets, such as constipation and diarrhoea.

The fact remains that GMO soybeans carry many health risks, and also drain precious foreign exchange, therefore, Pakistan should gradually include oilseed and soybean crops in the cropping pattern to reduce dependence on such costly imports. It may not be difficult to switch towards oilseeds, as it is an annual crop already grown successfully all over the country. A major challenge, however, will be to curtail the cost of production and convince growers. The solvent extractors and poultry industry must develop a linkage with local growers to produce oilseeds, as per the requirement of their industries.

Soybean was introduced in Pakistan as an oilseed crop during the early 1960s and 1970s and yielded promising adaptability and production results. It was grown in vast areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P), Punjab and Sindh, areas which were found to be the most suitable for the commercial cultivation of soybean. Over the passage of time, however, its cultivation halted and gradually disappeared from the cropping schemes in Pakistan. The reasons for the reduction in soybean cultivation are manifold but the major ones relate to economic factors, such as the changing import and export policies of the crop. Farmers tend to grow crops which yield maximum and swift results.

GMO soybeans are cheap at the point of purchase in Brazil, USA and Canada. Importers tend to benefit and have thus monopolised the poultry feed market, by eliminating locally grown soybean.

Going forward, Pakistan must seriously change course and start promoting soybean as a major oilseed crop, thus helping the local economy and reducing the import bill. This will require revisiting our policy plans in favour of promoting the cultivation of soybeans. This can be done by devising policy instruments that support farmers in cultivating soybeans in terms of inputs, germplasm and other such incentives. The government should initiate a publicity campaign for self-sufficiency in soybean cultivation. In addition, the government should provide buyback guarantee and support price until the trading business is brought under the market mechanism.

Efforts should also be undertaken to promote research and development in germplasm improvement, agronomic and local farming systems. Moreover, the Poultry Association, Solvent Association and Poultry Feed millers must join hands in support of the government and soybean growers in various ways to make Pakistan self-sufficient in soybean meals.

The writer has served at provincial, federal and international organisations as an environmental consultant

Published in The Express Tribune, January 23rd, 2023.

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Originally published at tribune.com.pk

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