Zimbabwe should seriously debate GM technology


Last week, Wisdom Mdzungairi raised a very salient question on the role of genetically modified organisms (GMO) in food security.

But in a country where people have more of a colossal appetite for politics than food, the battle of the Moyos desolately immersed this discussion.

The fact remains that Zimbabwe need a solution to its food security. For a country that boasts fertile soils, but ironically relies heavily on food imports, GM food is inevitable.

If you have used cooking oil, chicken, maize meal, soya products, tomatoes and other food items from South Africa then you have eaten GM food.

GM technology is not new in Zimbabwe. The maize seed and some of the cattle breeds are progenies of GM technology.

The Western world is flourishing because of GM food. But then why is GM technology shunned in Zimbabwe?

Let’s put it into context. A Zimbabwean farmer currently produces on average 0,6 to one tonne of maize per hectare, while a South African farmer, who uses advanced GM technology, produces six to ten tons on the same land size.

Simply put, a Zimbabwean farmer needs more resources on a hectare to harvest six to ten times less than a South African farmer.

Consequently, locally produced food becomes expensive compared to South African hence people are forced to buy the latter.

Perhaps a locally driven GM technology could be a panacea to our food security problems if we want to be a self-sustainable.

And trust the food we eat.
Three key questions dominate the GMO debate.

The first relates to GM food safety for human consumption and the environment, secondly their implication on religion and thirdly if it is another form of Western imperialism on global food security.

Except for making people overweight, research suggests minimal potential health concern except that genes producing allergy-inducing proteins (such as those from peanuts) could be introduced into other food plants such as groundnuts.

People might unknowingly ingest a substance to which they could be allergic. Laws have been used to ensure that all GM food is properly labelled.

Religious activists have also raised concerns about the contamination of food. Genes introduced from one “unholy” species such as pork into another such as beef may cause them to violate religious restrictions as they might eat beef contaminated with pork.

GM technology has raised serious political discussions on world agriculture and the centralisation of corporate power in the food chain. Some argue that GM technologies are essential for feeding the poor, while others say hunger is the result of poverty, and that GM technology is too expensive for poor farmers.

Poor farmers can’t afford new seeds every year, as required with sterile GM seeds as they have to rely on few global suppliers of seed, leading to greater consolidation of corporate power in the food system.

Conversely, there are huge potential benefits from GM crops such as maximum utilisation of land and increased drought resistance which could allow un-irrigated and marginal land to be more productive, while engineered pest resistance could reduce the need for expensive chemical pesticides for growing and storing crops.

Engineering the ability to fix nitrogen into cereal crops could reduce or even remove the need for chemical fertilisers and increase yields.

GM crops can contribute towards improved nutritional value. For example, Golden rice is specifically designed to enhance levels of vitamin A and iron.

However, Zimbabwe needs to start the GM discussion now and urgently for a number of reasons. Firstly, it is inconceivable to discuss economic revival without strengthening agriculture.

Secondly, we are a drought-prone country and sometimes half the population relies on food aid, while the other survives on imported food. Thirdly, food importationcounters social and economic development.

Fifth and finally, globally food has become a politically sensitive security issue and one of the most protected industries in the West.

As I argued earlier, GM technology needs to be locally driven in order to control the food production chain.

For as long as Third World countries are not in charge of their food production, they will continue to be a dumping ground exposing their people to unsafe food.

A decade ago some food aid was found to contain GM crops not yet approved for human consumption in Bolivia, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

In 2000 Sudan accused non-governmental organisations of distributing GM food aid and claimed they were poisoning their people.
Isn’t it time to wake and smell the coffee?

Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa