Biotech research in public sector of Pakistan

Globally, the role of the public sector in the research and development of agricultural biotechnology, particularly in developing countries, is very important because ultimately R&D improves the food supply and nutrition, creates jobs and increases farmers’ incomes – the common goals of countries like Pakistan where demand for food, feed and fiber crops is increasing fast and climate-resilient crops, which are mainly coming due to biotechnology, are also direly needed. Since biotech crops are helping the world to produce enough food for an ever-increasing population and cope with the ill effects of worsening climate change while protecting the environment, therefore a number of countries worldwide, especially in Asia that also includes our country’s neighbors China and India, are conducting biotech research in the public sector to develop crops that increase the productivity of farmers in general and agriculture sector in particular, with a major focus on food crops and crops of high commercial value to increase food production in order to meet the demands of the burgeoning population and also to assist resource-poor farmers with marginal land holdings. But the question is where is our country Pakistan, where agriculture not only provides livelihood to majority of country’s population directly or indirectly but also is undoubtedly the backbone of economy as many industries are dependent on raw materials of various crops especially cotton, doing at the state level for research in the field of revolutionary science of crop biotechnology?

Before finding an answer to this question, let us take a brief look at the status of biotechnology in our country. In Pakistan, there are a number of universities are offering various degrees in biotechnology, and most importantly their number is on the rise. Pakistan already has several good institutions at the public level (a large number of domestic and multinational seed companies are undertaking R&D of various crops using GM techniques as well), which are working on various aspects of biotechnology, which is globally accepted as a technology of great promise offering an infinite number of ways for combating problems of not only agriculture but also health, industry and environment, among others. At present, nearly 460 scientists, including more than 200 PhDs, are working in various universities and R&D institutes and there are nearly 30 centers of biotechnology spread all over the country. In public sector only, 26 centers at various agricultural crop institutes and universities have been modernized to undertake tissue culture related activities, crops improvement using marker-assisted selection techniques, DNA testing and GMO detection.

As far as public sector research institutions work and achievements in the area of agricultural biotechnology are concerned, tissue culture technology has been widely developed and also commercialized. Significant among these are the development of virus free potato and banana. Both of these crops suffer from acute viral infections resulting in colossal economic losses. Use of these technologies has greatly helped in saving these crops. In addition, tissue culture has been used for production of exotic orchids and cut flowers. This technology also holds a great potential in forestry and micropropagation of medicinal and vegetative crops. Besides, several institutes and university biotechnology departments have developed biofertilisers based on different non pathogenic microbes responsible for enhancing plant growth by their ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonium which can be used by plants, by solubilizing insoluble phosphorus and by providing growth hormones to the plant roots. Many such strains have been made in to different formulations and marketed by several agri-business companies under their own trade names.

Major technology development has however occurred in case of genetic engineering in different crops for different traits. After the adoption of Bt cotton, which can produce protein/s internally which confers resistance to insects, in 2010, al thought the cotton farmers have been able to overcome the losses caused by different chewing pests but recently cotton leaf diseases particularly cotton leaf curl virus (CLCV) has also become a major threat to cotton production. Therefore, rightly, the major thrust of R&D in public sector institutions is for developing Cotton Leaf Curl Virus (CLCV) resistant cotton varieties. Two institutions, namely National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering (NIBGE) and Centre for Excellence in Molecular Biology (CEMB), are actively involved in this project of national importance. Work on several approaches involving recombinant Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid (DNA) technology is being carried out resulting in some success. Hopefully, in near future CLCV resistant cultivars will be available for commercial cultivation, which will let our country, just like India, reap the true benefits of Biotech cotton currently grown on over 90% of the cotton area. In addition to cotton, work involving genetic engineering is being done on other crops.

Currently, the crops under genetic transformation by different public sector institutions in Pakistan include wheat, rice, sugarcane, cotton, soybean, chickpea, groundnut, brassica, potato, tomato and chili. In consideration of the problems of our country’s agriculture, major emphasis of the research in our public sector is on developing salinity and drought tolerant varieties in addition to tolerance to biotic stresses. Emphasis is also being given to improve the nutritional quality of our staple crops, especially wheat, in view of the fact that the National Nutrition Survey of 2011 revealed acute deficiencies of iron and zinc in our diet. As far as commercialization of biotech crops developed by public sector institutions is concerned, different varieties of Bt cotton, currently the only biotech crop approved for commercial cultivation in Pakistan, have already been handed over to cotton farmers. This number will certainly increase in the years to come when our country will be planting more biotech crops, just like the major biotech crops growing countries like USA, Brazil, China and India.

The above-mentioned activities and achievements clearly show that Pakistan has requisite infrastructure and trained manpower at public sector level to undertake crops improvement through modern biotechnology techniques. Considering the fact that Pakistan has one of the world’s lowest spending on agriculture R&D which includes biotech research as well, the role that our scientists in only public sector institutions are playing to develop potentially high-yielding biotech crops is highly commendable. However, to reap the true benefits of world’s fastest adopted technology i.e. biotechnology, it is necessary that our government allocates more funds for biotech research in the public sector, work for public-private partnerships in biotech research (combined resources of both public and private sectors will certainly yield better results) and most importantly expedite the relevantly slow biotech crops approvals process in Pakistan so that under-performing agriculture sector could be transformed through biotechnology. China which is recognized as advanced country in terms of biotech research, are good examples for Pakistan to follow in this regard.