Do GMOs have a role in food security?

A growing number of people in Zimbabwe are careful to avoid GM (genetically modified) foods, but it is almost impossible to do so.

Any journey through the aisles of a supermarket becomes increasingly frustrating, as the ingredients labels have become cryptic and deceptive, so that only experts can scrutinise them.

Besides, famine is once again stalking Zimbabwe on a scale not seen in Africa over a long time. According to estimates by the United Nations’ World Food Programme, as many as 38 million Africans are living under the threat of starvation, and many will succumb if emergency relief does not reach them in time.

Already, indications are six of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces face severe food shortages, and the government has ordered the Grain Marketing Board to send grain to the affected areas.

“The GMB is holding on to 270 000 metric tonnes and have to start helping our people,” Agriculture minister Joseph Made said recently.

Zimbabwe needs an estimated 2,2 million tonnes of maize each year.

And the government crop assessment carried out in January found the country had 2 million hectares of maize planted, up from 1,8 million last year, and was expecting to harvest 1,7 million tonnes.

On the other hand, the UN has appealed for $415 million to feed up to 2 million people this year until the harvest starts in May.

Since 2000, Zimbabwe has faced successive years of food shortages that coincided with land reforms launched by long-time President Robert Mugabe to seize nearly 4 000 white-owned farms for redistribution to landless blacks.

The programme has combined with poor rains and shortages of seed and fertiliser to force a country once considered the breadbasket of the region to depend on food aid.

The food shortage has heightened the debate on Zimbabwe’s policy on genetically modified organisms (GMO) imported food, with Science and Technology minister Heneri Dzinotyiwei insisting research has shown that they are harmless.

GMOs are plants or animals whose genes are artificially altered to enhance yields and resistance to pests and diseases.

The policy shift comes at a time when government has previously rejected GM-modified maize, even during times of drought-induced hunger, with Made saying it would have long-term negative effects on yields.

The review is seen paving the way for the possible lifting of the restrictions.

But Dzinotyiwei says: “The truth of the matter is that from a strictly scientific position, those products have not been seen to be unhealthy in any way or to interfere with the environment in any way.”

Are there solutions to food shortages? The problem is that most NGOs and farmers’ unions stand against GMOs.

Companies and scientists state that biotechnology may help combat hunger in Africa, but most NGOs and farmers doubt it.

Environmental issues and disappointing results are their main criticism.

GMOs are the most controversial technology in the world. We are all sceptical about them, because a lot of research shows that things didn’t work out as promised.

No one would ever dispute the fact that Zimbabwe is in need of improving how its food is produced and preserved.

This is because the process of food production and preservation is still largely at subsistence level and except for some few countries, which you can count at your fingertips, food production, or agriculture generally, is still dominated by the system used by our forefathers.

It is no surprise therefore to hear about famine on the continent. It is not an exaggeration to say that the continent suffers from famine not because of lack of lands to till but simply due to the fact that the land is still being tilled in the old way!

In some areas, farmers have come to depend on fertilisers for good yields even if the land is by itself fertile, this is because they have been made to believe that there is no way they can get improved yields until they use it.

Sometimes, these fertilisers end up spoiling their yields or even contaminating the environment or making them sick.

The first global attention to famine in Africa was in the 80s when millions of children and women died in Ethiopia.

As it is usual on the continent, the political leadership denied that there was any form of famine until millions had perished.

Between 2000 and now, Zimbabwe has been afflicted by famine but the political leadership scoffed at the reports dismissing them as nothing.

According to the leadership, it was nothing unusual; it was not a famine but “food shortage” or something to that effect. But what is famine and what is food shortage?

Are the dying and starving population interested in semantics? What is the discerning line between famine and shortage of food?

What is more, the prospects for modified crops aren’t as good as they should be. Due to strong resistance, currently South Africa is the only country on the continent to have approved GM seeds for planting.

It is in this light that we come to the issue of GMO food that now seems to be the in-thing in some developed countries, which some African countries are also being wooed onto the bandwagon.

It is important to look critically at the issues involved before we open our doors to this idea, because as we all know Africa is always a testing ground for all ideas, viable, unviable, laudable and ludicrous.

Does Zimbabwe need GMO foods? Isn’t it that what Zimbabwe needs is to improve on the way we practice agriculture?

What we need on the continent is the knowledge to be able to produce more foods and the technology to preserve the surpluses that have been produced and not some dubious GMOs.

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