Over the past decade, there has been a global shift in the inclusiveness of women in varied fields, including all levels of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.
Their active involvement in agricultural research has also created a platform to work with bold vision and brave actions to achieve positive change for a better future towards greater food security.
This comes amid a growing demand for sustainable food production, where Pakistan’s population is expected to rise to 338 million by 2050, and its value chains are impacted by the need to produce food more sustainably amid a changing climate.
Making real impact
Dr. Najm-us-Sahar is a young female scientist making a real impact through her contributions to the government sector, and she is setting a strong precedent for her fellow scientists and the next generation to follow in chili research in Pakistan.
Pakistan is the world’s fourth-largest producer of chilies. It accounts for around 4-5% of total global chili production. The country ranks sixth among red chilli exporting countries and accounts for 7.2% of global exports.
However, pests and diseases are a continuous problem for farmers throughout the growing season. Chemical control is a common solution. But it can be harmful to human and animal health, and the use of pesticides also leads to export confiscation in the international market trade.
In order to ensure quality food for consumers, value chain personnel must meet international food code standards. Aflatoxin and MRL concentrations found in agri-based produce must be quantifiably below the permissible limits set by international standards.
Sustainable approach needed
A sustainable approach to handle such issues without deteriorating the quality of produce is, therefore, required, and Dr. Najm-us-Sahar is playing a key role as part of the CABI-led project ‘Regulatory harmonization in Pakistan for maximum residue limits and biopesticides.’
This is with the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service. The project is run by CABI in collaboration with the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) through its regional centers National Agricultural Research Centre (NARC) Islamabad, Southernzone Agricultural Research Centre (SARC) Karachi, and Aridzone Research Centre (AZRC) Umerkot.
She hails from Karachi, a city with a vast contribution towards science and technology in Pakistan. She is a qualified biotechnologist with a Ph.D. in Food Science and Technology from the University of Karachi.
Dr. Najm-us-Sahar is currently working within the mandate of PARC to address food and security issues in Pakistan as a research scientist. Her research work includes the establishment of system-based HACCP guidelines for the drying and storage of exportable chilies to control Aflatoxin contamination and the development of a system based on preventive approaches to address food safety concerns and increase the yield of Pakistani agricultural crops.
Dr. Najm-us-Sahar and her team at PARC-SARC are providing regional coordination and support to the program and are involved in building awareness with regional stakeholders in Sindh.
Food safety issue
Mycotoxin contamination of agricultural commodities such as rice and chilies has always been a food safety issue in Pakistan. Dr. Najm-us-Sahar and her research team have made several contributions in identifying the problems affecting the chili value chain to develop safer and toxin-free chilies.
Through problem-oriented research, her team has also carried out multiple studies, studying the occurrence and residues of aflatoxins in chilies.
To build the in-country capacity of scientists on aflatoxin and its management, Dr. Najm-us-Sahar participated in a one-week hands-on training at the Aflatoxin Biocontrol Laboratory at Crop Diseases Research Institute (CDRI), PARC-NARC under the mentorship of Dr. Atif Jamal. The laboratory at CDRI is the first Aflatoxin Biocontrol Laboratory in Pakistan to conduct scientific research on the biocontrol aspects of managing aflatoxins in agricultural commodities.
Dr. Atif Jamal is in charge of the CDRI Aflatoxin Biocontrol Laboratory and is also the first Pakistani scientist working on Aflatoxin biocontrol development of this nature. Through Cochran Fellowship Program, he received intensive training on Aflatoxin biocontrol development by renowned biological control scientists from the USDA Agricultural Research Service and International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Nigeria, at the Virginia Tech Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Centre, USA.
His team of young female scientists are working together for a national cause on aflatoxin control. The laboratory is also serving as a knowledge booth on aflatoxin biocontrol for scientists, academia, and the private sector.
Dr. Najm-us-Sahar said, “This training proved to be very beneficial for me as it provided me an opportunity to further enhance my skills in aflatoxins management and learn a novel approach to biological control to mitigate the hazardous contamination in the important crops of Pakistan.
“This training will further assist me in addressing the food safety issues in Pakistan that have yet not been fully investigated.”
Dr. Najm-us-Sahar has since stepped up her efforts to further disseminate her learnings to students and researchers within her establishment.
Through this collaborative approach, Dr. Najm-us-Sahar has appreciated CABI and USDA/USAID, and CDRI-NARC for promoting an aflatoxin control strategy at a national level and for facilitating the diagnostic facilities to manage this alarming issue of the food chain.