GMOs and food security in SADC

 

The first millennium development goal, as identified by the United Nations, is eradicating extreme poverty and hunger but countries in the Southern African Development Community are facing big challenges in attaining this objective.

To conquer this goal, countries in the regional bloc, as a matter of necessity, need to achieve sustainable food security – a scenario where all people at all times have physical and economic access to adequate amounts of nutritious, safe, and culturally appropriate foods, which are produced in an environmentally sustainable and socially just manner.

Some people see genetically modified crops, as playing a big role in reaching this all-important goal of eradicating poverty and hunger.

Genetic modification is the technology that employs genetic material from unrelated organisms and injects them into another organism (plant or animal), to confer the recipient organism new and desirable features such as higher yield, pest resistance, and drought tolerance.

According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (2013) report, only one SADC member state – South Africa (ranked 8th) – conversely, is among top 28 international GMOs producers in the world.

The fact that Southern Africa has only one member state as one of the top GMO producers in the universe shows that there is either a lack of consensus or political will when it comes to embracing GMOs in the region.

This is, however, understandable because the universe is divided into two parties when it comes to GMOs.

“One party is against the extensive use of GMOs and it is led by the European Union. It prefers organic matter and perceives it to be healthier, and is of the firm belief that GMOs do more harm than good.

“The second party, headed by the United States of America, is supportive in using GMOs widely as it argues that GMOs have no proven risks and hence, there is no harm in using them,” says Sameh Soror, an expert in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Adding on, scientific institutions, government regulators and other stakeholders in Southern Africa lack the expertise to support decision making on the relevance and applicability of new biotechnologies, particularly genetically modified agricultural crops that contribute to increased agricultural productivity and ensure access to safe food.

This is so because as debate around GMOs continues, with conflicting viewpoints and legislation emanating from different SADC countries.

In Zimbabwe, for instance, Parliament recently grilled Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Permanent Secretary, Ringson Chitsiko, over government’s refusal to adopt genetically modified organisms and BT Cotton production.

Chitsiko told the joint Portfolio Committee on Lands and Agriculture and the Thematic Committee on Millennium Development Goals that the government was being cautious on policies to allow GMOs and BT Cotton because there was need for further research on their repercussions.

Legislator Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, however, said government’s rigidity was uncalled as scientists from the country had proved GMOs were harmless.

“Farmers are abandoning cotton because of prudence in policies by government, and who will die in Zimbabwe for using BT cotton? Why are you so rigid to the extent you are not even allowing trials. You should allow for stakeholder discussions over the issue so that Zimbabweans decide on what they want.”

Another legislator, Remigious Matangira, added: “We are already eating imported cooking oil from BT cotton seed from South Africa, and cattle are also eating BT cotton cake and why the rigidity?”

Chitsiko, nevertheless, maintained countries that had adopted GMOs were now regretting the move, but Members of Parliament could not have it, saying the government should allow for research and dialogue on the issue.

Agricultural researcher, Adeeba Khairun, agrees there are some aspects to GMOs that require more research, and only after that can it be deemed appropriate or inappropriate.

Accordingly, as recommended by the SADC Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and Biosafety in 2003, the regional bloc should encourage member states to commission studies on the implications of biotechnology and biosafety on agriculture, environment, health and socioeconomics as part of an integrated monitoring and evaluation system.

More so, the region needs support to strengthen the capacity of scientists, government regulators and policy makers in biosafety and biotechnology so as to increase food security as well as eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.

Honestly, the adoption of GMOs is not the only way to realise food security but is one option that should be explored carefully to transform the economies of SADC member states.

Consequently, countries within and across the regional bloc cannot afford to ignore GMOs as a possible option for improving food security.

October 2014
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