Zim scientists seek approval for GM crop trials

Sifelani Tsiko —
SCIENTISTS in Zimbabwe are seeking approval 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.

Prof Idah Sithole-Niang, a University of Zimbabwe biochemist told Zimpapers Syndication on the side-lines of a multi-stakeholder interactive workshop which was held in the capital recently to discuss key issues and concerns regarding biotechnology and GMOs that the scientific community must be given an opportunity to do confined field trials (CFTs) to demonstrate the role of this new technology in improving yields and fighting hunger and poverty.

“We are pushing for the scientific community to be allowed to conduct confined field trials for a selected variety of GM crops,” she said.

“Conducting confined field trials will certainly provide farmers and other stakeholders with a chance to see how this new technology can be used to improve crop yields and disease resistance. Seeing is believing and demonstration plots will go a long way in dispelling some of the fears associated with this technology.”

Assuring Agricultural and Food Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Southern Africa (GMASSURE) organised the consultative workshop to provide Zimbabweans with a platform to discuss key issues and concerns regarding biotechnology and GMOs.

Participants also discussed extensively the implications of the adoption or non-adoption and the regulation of GMOs.

“The government and its regulatory agencies should allow us to do confined field trials. Conducting local research and having a mechanism of evaluating those products out of this research will lead to improvement of crops peculiar to our diets,” Prof Sithole–Niang said.

“Apart from conducting CFTs for research, we also need it for teaching purposes in order to help students understand or see how biological processes work.

“If we are allowed to do this, then GM research will become routine and will not sound alien to our students. It will help us address production constraints in our agricultural sector.”

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.

Prof Sithole – Niang said the cost of delayed adoption of GM crops has been huge on Zimbabwe.

“Our farmers are not farming profitably and cannot compete with other countries that have adopted the technology and are using improved seeds and technologies,” she said.

“Why are we condemning our farmers to be in the business of farming for insects?”

A cotton seed expert says if the growing of genetically modified cotton is allowed in Zimbabwe it could be a boon for the state.  He said cotton can generate nearly $40 million in incremental revenue every year through improved crop yields and reduced cost of production.

“Zimbabwe stands to benefit significantly by adopting modern technologies rather than totally banning them,” he said.

“Zimbabwean farmers need superior technology to compete with other cotton growers around the world. Improving farm productivity is key to reviving Zimbabwe’s cotton sector. Cotton farmers around the world have adopted biotechnology to make production more efficient.”

The estimated incremental figure of $40 million a year was calculated after a study on incomes and production costs for 72 smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe and 42 in South Africa in the 2013–2014 cropping season was done.

He said 70 percent of cotton traded global is GM cotton. India and China are among some of the biggest producers of Bt cotton. Modern biotechnology remains controversial in much of Africa with researchers raising questions on ownership, markets, genetic contamination and control of the technologies.

In Africa, only four countries – South Africa, Burkina Faso, Sudan and Egypt have commercialised genetically modified crops, while 19 countries have established biosafety regulatory systems, four countries are developing regulatory systems, 21 countries are a work in progress, and 10 have no National Biosafety Frameworks (NBFs).

Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Nigeria, Uganda and Malawi were among countries that have approved GM crop trials. Experts say one of the reasons for slow adoption of biotechnology is the lack of functional regulatory systems, including inability to perform timely decision-making.

South Africa, which is Zimbabwe’s major trading partner, has commercialised GM crops since 1997. Of these crops, 95 percent of their cotton is GM, maize 95 percent and soyabean 95 percent.

In 2014, Zimbabwe imported 4 000 tonnes of chickens from SA, while Africa’s biggest economy also exported 67 000 tonnes of chickens to the rest of the region, including countries with a moratorium on GM crops.

“What were those chickens fed with given the percentage of GM content in maize and soybean grown in South Africa?” said Prof Sithole-Niang.

“Clearly, they are being fed with GM stock feed.

“This also says South African producers have a competitive advantage over our own. This has obviously led to loss of opportunities and jobs, it kills our industries. In short, we are exporting jobs and eventually talent.”

Zimbabwe and most African countries still have a low uptake of biotech food crops due to lack of awareness and stiff resistance. Experts say the continent still lags behind in the adoption of agricultural biotechnology compared to the rapid rates seen in the medical and health sectors.

One of the reasons for slow adoption of biotechnology is the lack of functional regulatory systems, including inability to perform timely decision-making.

Zimbabwe still maintains a ban on GM crops saying transgenic crops could be harmful to human health and the environment. However, it allows milled GM maize to avert starvation.

Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Minister, Dr Made told Parliament early this year that the Government had not changed its policy on GMOs, adding any maize imports from other countries would go through extensive security checks.

“On any maize that would possibly be GMO, the country is very clear on that. We do not accept GMO maize. When it is accepted, it has got to be brought in under escort, direct for milling if we give the permits for such maize to ever come into the country,” Made said.

“I am concerned about materials that have the possibility of germinating. Grain and processed food is a different subject. That is why I said if we give the authority for GMO grain to come in, it has to go directly for milling.”

Despite the ban, other countries in Africa are pressing ahead to do confined trials as they seek newer technologies to increase yields, boost crop disease resistance and improve the livelihoods of farmers.

In October, this year, Tanzania gave its nod to the first genetically modified maize research trials in the Dodoma region, a semi-arid area in the central part of the country.

The confined field trial aims to demonstrate the effectiveness and safety of a drought tolerant GM maize hybrid developed by the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project.

Dr Alois Kullaya, country coordinator for the WEMA project in Tanzania, said researchers are happy that they are now able to carry out confined field trials “and produce tangible results for people to see, as well as illustrate how biotech maize will benefit the farmers.”

Tanzania’s progress comes a year after the country revised a strict liability clause in the Environment Management Biosafety Regulations. The restrictive clause stated that scientists, donors, and partners funding research would be held accountable in the event of any damage that might occur during or after research on GM crops.

“Such developments in Tanzania provides hope for the technology’s prospects across the continent,” said a biotech expert at the workshop.

“Movement of GM crops is not that good here in Zimbabwe, but elsewhere on the continent things are happening.”

Zimbabwe is still 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.

“As the scientific community we are demanding to be allowed to do CFTs as it is the only way to find out the biosafety details and other agronomic parameters of GM crops,” said Dr Zephaniah Dhlamini, head of the Applied Genetic Testing Centre at the National University of Science and Technology (Nust).

“There is a lot of misrepresentation of the truth. Anything big is a GMO. Zimbabweans are now at the mercy of anti–GMO activists who want to manipulate public opinion by denouncing modern biotechnologies despite their potential benefits.

“People are so obsessed with the idea that GMOs are unnatural. Of course, GM technologies are not a panacea, but we should embrace their potential benefits to find solutions to some of the most pressing problems we are facing such as climate change and poverty.”

Under the country’s laws, CFTs are permitted but no research institution had so far been granted permission as the requests have been pending before the National Biotechnology Authority and the Ministry of Agriculture which has the mandate to give the final nod.

Field trials are an important step before the commercial release of any crop. Prof Sithole-Niang said biosafety aspects of any transgenic variety of crops can only be assessed properly after field trials.

“We have challenges that are not being addressed by conventional approaches in agriculture,” she said.

“By 2040, about 9 billion people will need to be fed. Tell me how we are going to feed them in the wake of climate change, dwindling water and land resources? Our global food basket is very narrow now and 80 percent of the world’s caloric intake now depends on four crops – maize, wheat, potatoes and maize.” –Zimpapers Syndication

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