Food security concerns pose GMO challenges for region

A preliminary assessment of the food security situation in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) shows that the seasonal rainfall performance for much of the region has been above normal. According to the SADC Food Security Early Warning System ‘ which carried out the assessment ‘ only Tanzania has had a poor season following a delayed start to the rains. Buoyed by an anticipated surplus of the staple maize of more than 5.4 million tonnes in South Africa, the SADC region is expecting an overall surplus of about 2.28 million tonnes of the crop this year. Output in all other member states is forecast to be poor, ranging from a domestic deficit of 14,000 tonnes in Angola to anticipated shortfalls of 781,000 tonnes and 1.38 million tonnes for Malawi and Zimbabwe, respectively. Projected maize shortfalls for Botswana, Lesotho and Tanzania are 142,000 tonnes, 138,000 tonnes and 418,000 tonnes, respectively. Countries projecting shortfalls will have to rely on intra-regional trade and food assistance from donors to bridge the gap between now and the 2006/07 harvest around March/April next year. This poses challenges as most of these countries have strict regulations governing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). South Africa, which has the biggest maize surplus, allows production and distribution of GMO food. It is the only African country that has fully adopted GMO technology and has the largest hectarage of about 500,000 under GMO crops. While South Africa is pushing ahead with commercial GMO crops, other Southern African countries shun them since the technology is still under experimentation and, therefore, restricted use. Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland and Zambia prohibit GMO imports for fear of bio-terrorism, and lack of clarity about the health and environmental implications of GMO technology. The countries also fear unscrupulous dumping by companies or nations in efforts to dispose of surplus stocks or to recoup the cost of research and development, and production. Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe only allow milled GMO maize products to enter their territories and have banned imports of raw GMO maize. In cases where un-milled GMO food aid is allowed, there are usually public warnings that the grain should be consumed and not used for cultivation, and that it should be properly packaged. South Africa has had a GMO Act since 1997, which allows farmers and manufacturers to produce, import, export or distribute genetically modified food and crops. They must, however, first get permits before engaging in production or distribution of GMOs. There are current attempts to amend the GMO Act following criticism that it, among other things, undermines consumer choice by being silent on compulsory labelling of GMO food and that it places the liability for activities involving GMOs on end users, not producers. The divergent views on GMOs within SADC could have repercussions on the domestic industry in most countries in the region in the event that the bulk of the maize stocks in South Africa are genetically modified. This will mean all imported maize destined for other countries in the region would have to be milled first before shipment in order to meet stringent regulations in the importing member states. This will affect the viability of milling companies in the receiving countries. So far only Tanzania has indicated it wants to enact a law to govern the introduction and adoption of genetic engineering. The government plans to table a Bill in parliament to discuss GMO crops amid strong resistance and campaigns from the public and non-governmental organisations against its adoption. There are efforts to harmonise agricultural policies within SADC, with member states having already agreed on common seed standards in order to facilitate their movement across borders. A meeting of senior government officials from the region agreed in Mozambique in December 2005 to adopt a harmonised seed regulation system. ‘

March 2006
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