At the turn of the millennium, genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were touted as an answer to food shortages haunting the globe, particularly in developing countries.
But a local agricultural policy expert Roger Mpande says this has turned out to be a false start and Zimbabwe’s best bet is to stick to local knowledge systems and resources.
He says the health, environmental and social impact of GMOs cannot be underestimated.
Mpande — who spoke during a Humanitarian Information Facilitation Centre knowledge brief for journalists in Harare last week on why Zimbabwe should refuse to licence the commercialisation of GMOs — says a look at the GM products leaves a lot to be desired.
“There is no drought-tolerant variety (among the GMOs), no vitamin enhancement, no medicinal traits and no yield increases,” he says.
Mpande, who works with the Zimbabwe Organic Producers and Promoters Association (Zoppa), says only two traits — herbicide tolerance and B toxin expression — have made it onto the market while only four crops have been commercialised. These are maize, soya beans, cotton and canola.
There has been extensive debates surrounding GMO issues in relation to organic farming in the country and Africa in particular and the subject of genetic modification has been contentious owing to various reasons. So much uncertainty still surrounds GMOs which can cause unpredictable health and environmental effects.
Zoppa Trust executive director Fortunate Nyakanda says her organisation is promoting organic agriculture which she defined as “a process that uses methods respectful of the environment from the production stages through handling and processing”.
She says organic farming systems are more beneficial as their practices combine science, tradition and innovation to benefit shared environment and promote fair relationships.
“As such they are highly relevant to smallholders although also applicable to big land holdings and offer an opportunity for every farmer to earn a livelihood,” she adds.
She says this agricultural system also establishes sustainable livelihoods for farming families and their communities.
“There is also low-cost production as most inputs are locally available and generated. It gives access to new market opportunities and premium prices in most cases,” she says.
According to Mpande, commercialisation of GM products increases the cost of production.
“The costs are incurred through procurement of seed annually, supported by high input production systems when you look at fertilisers, irrigation and regulatory requirements,” Mpande says. “It also displaces local seed industry and replaces it with multinational companies such as Monstanto and Cargill while there are cumbersome export permit requirements when you look at the need for labelling and other liabilities.”
Mpande says it is important to appreciate that Zimbabwe’s environment is best suited for healthy foods and the future of the food industry does not have to depend on GMOs as compared to Europe, Asia and the US. He says Zimbabwe is not ready for this kind of technology.
Major chemical companies are said to be against organic farming as it is regarded as a threat to the crop chemical industry in the world.
The organic market, says Nyakanda, is among the fastest growing market segments globally, with a growth of about an average of 20% in the last seven years.
Consumers, especially in international markets, are increasingly preferring products grown with natural methods and with due respect to environmental and social dimensions.
As a result, demand and marketing in products such as organic products, fair-trade products, and eco-friendly products is rising.
Organic agriculture, according to Nyakanda, is key as a livelihood because “it can replace agro-chemical inputs by multiple cropping, natural enemies and rebuilding of the soil in areas where there has been environment concerns on chemical overuse and building of pest resistance”.
She adds that this system can also stabilise the ecosystem and allow even poor farmers to earn a living from agriculture without input constrains.
GMOs allow for enhanced disease and pest resistance and also prevent heavy usage of herbicides as the crop will be able to outgrow and fight weeds just on application of single and moderate herbicide, thereby saving the environment.