Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor
The mere mention of genetically modified foods (GMOs) has stirred emotions and popular consternation around the issue of altered foods, with concerns over health and its effects on the environment. So much has been said about GMOs, with various people on opposing sides making various claims substantiated and unsubstantiated.
The result has been fear, confusion and meaningless propaganda.
Fear of new technology has generated mixed feelings marked by initial scepticism followed with embrace and adoption after noting the benefits.
Despite a blanket ban on GMOs in Zimbabwe, scientists have been doing research on GMO crops for years benefiting other countries which they have been sharing their findings with.
Darlington Mutetwa, a Quton plant breeder, has spearheaded efforts to promote the growing genetically modified cotton in Nigeria, Malawi and other African countries.
Renowned University of Zimbabwe biochemist Prof Idah Sithole-Niang has also been at the forefront of promoting the growing of GM crops from maize, cowpeas, Bt cotton and others globally without much recognition back home.
The same goes for a number of top Zimbabwean academics who are working in various top global companies using biotechnology to promote the development of various agricultural and medical products.
All this has been going on without Zimbabwe benefiting from its talent and the emerging technology, simply because the country is not willing to adopt the new technologies.
Zimbabwe, for long has been a hostile place for researchers testing genetically modified crops.
Through a combination of regulations, bureaucracy, mistrust and fear, the Government has barred the commercial planting of a transgenic crops.
Anti-GM activists have also added to the woes, but under the new dispensation, things are changing.
Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Minister Professor Amon Murwira has been bold and aggressive in terms of re-orienting the education system under five terms of reference which includes teaching, research, community engagement, innovation and industrialisation.
He has come out strongly and supported science and technology development to promote the new products, platforms and solutions that embed best practice to support the country’s industrial and technological development.
The space is opening up for scientists who are keen on GM crop development.
And, recently, the National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe organised the biosafety sensitisation and consultative workshop to demystify biotechnology and GMOs for parliamentarians and other stakeholders.
The hosting of the event was supported by the African Union Development Agency-New Partnership for Africa’s Development/African Biosafety Network of Expertise (AUDA-NEPAD/ABNE), an African Union (AU) organisation responsible for supporting the building of functional biosafety regulatory systems in African Union member states.
All this demonstrates the opening up of space for scientists and the international research community to play their part in creating an enabling environment for Zimbabwe to adopt new technologies that can enhance agricultural productivity.
Years of unnecessary anti-GMO debate in Zimbabwe has missed the mark.
We should not just single out GMOs for criticism, but also look at the impact of the vast amount of chemicals — nitrogen fertilisers and synthetic pesticides used in our conventional agricultural system.
These also have serious implications on health and the environment. Our scientists are quite clear about GM technology — that it is not a “silver bullet” solution, but one crop strategy we can employ to enhance our crop yields and reduce our costs.
Our own biochemists, Prof Christopher Chetsanga and Prof Sithole-Niang, have spoken out eloquently on the subject and outlining the potential benefits of GM crops.
They have said that Zimbabwe should go step by step and start with GM cotton as plunging into GM food crops totally may be too risky and controversial.
They are saying Zimbabwe should at least move to do trials for Bt cotton to boost cotton production.
Government wants to prioritise digitisation and technology and innovation in order to achieve meaningful development in the country and the region.
To meet the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Zimbabwe and the SADC region, our country has pledged to promote emerging technologies in a number of fields such as robotics, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, quantum computing, big data, biotechnology, fifth generation wireless technology and 3D printing.
Prof Sithole-Niang says if the growing of genetically modified cotton is allowed in Zimbabwe it could be a boon for the State.
She says if we adopt GM cotton we can save up to US$90 million a year in terms of reduced production cost.
The country, she argues, could also get $40 million in incremental revenue every year through improved crop yields and reduced cost of production.
Zimbabwe was the first country in Africa to conduct confined field trials for GM cotton and maize around 2000 before the country put a blanket ban on GM crop trials and food by 2005.
And as a result, biotechnology experts say the country has lost out on the potential benefits of new agricultural technologies that can significantly boost yields, incomes and improve livelihoods.
Zimbabwe has not adopted GMO crop technologies, but established the National Biotechnology Authority in 2006 to regulate research, transport, import, manufacture, safe handling and use of organisms and products of modern biotechnology.
In its Second Science, Technology and Innovation Policy released in March 2012, the country identified biotechnology as one of the most promising tools that can help increase food productivity, enhance the health and wellness of society and boost manufacturing output.
While Zimbabwe is delaying the adoption of GM crops, other countries such as South Africa have been growing GM maize, soyabean and cotton for nearly two decades with latest statistics indicating plant hectarage of some 2,7 million hectares.
There has been a massive spread of GMO products in Zimbabwe and across the entire SADC region which include maize, cotton and soyabean, livestock feed, tobacco, bananas, potatoes, poultry products and vegetables.
South Africa has embraced GMOs and as the region’s strongest economy it has been impossible to stop the penetration of GMO foods.
Worse still, with drought ravaging Zimbabwe and most other SADC countries, food aid has come from the US and China, which are now among the biggest producers of GM maize.
No matter what we do, Zimbabwe cannot stop the emergence and movement of new technologies. We only have to adopt the new technologies and take the necessary biosafety measures to minimise the potential risks.
We are legging behind.
In 2018, Sudan cultivated 243 000 ha of Bt cotton, eSwatini 250ha, while in 2019 Ethiopia planted Bt cotton on more than 500 000ha, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) 2018 report.
Nigeria, Malawi and Kenya have given cultivation approvals for Bt cotton. More than 70 percent of cotton traded global is GM cotton.
India and China are among some of the biggest producers of Bt cotton where Zimbabwe imports some of its clothing materials from.
As a country we are consuming GMO products and it only makes sense to get on the train and start growing GM cotton for a start.
We have the technical expertise and what we need are resources and the political will.
Debate on GMOs is quite controversial and anyone who touches GMOs gets burned. People are so worked up on both sides that no matter what you say, someone will criticise you. We should raise concerns using facts. We should utilise scientists to drive our own biotechnology agenda.
We should not lose ourselves to fear and confusion.
Biotechnology is big business and as a country we should harness it for our benefit. Cuba, South Africa, China, US, Sudan, Egypt and many other countries are using biotechnology for their benefit.
Zimbabwe should allow our scientists to conduct confined field trials for genetically modified crops as part of efforts to find innovative solutions to some of the pressing problems facing the country’s agricultural sector.
We have the capacity to do it. Our universities are training biotechnology students who are being taken outside and benefiting other countries.
Why should we waste our resources and fail to tap on the benefits of this technology when we have the capacity to harness it?