Are GMOs safe for human consumption? …second NAM technical meeting sparks debate

By Sifelani Tsiko

HARARE – The second Non-Aligned Movement Science and Technology technical meeting has sparked a fresh wave of public interest in a long-standing controversial debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Renowned biochemist Prof Christopher Chetsanga, in his keynote address, ignited the debate by openly claiming that GMOs were safe for human consumption citing the US as an example of a country where people have eaten the food for the past two decades.

“Most African countries still fail to take full advantage of biotechnology in agriculture and industry,” he told delegates at an industrial biotechnology meeting in Harare last week.

“There are continuing false rumours about GMOs being health hazards to humans. I worked extensively with GMOs when I was working as a professor in the US.

That country has developed numerous varieties of GMOs and its people have eaten GMO-based food products for almost 20 years.

“There has not been any report of people’s health being harmed by these new GMO products.”

His remarks on GMOs elicited mixed reactions among the delegates made up of biotechnology experts, academia, university students, government officials and researchers from 11 NAM member states.

Debate on GMOs has been polarizing in Zimbabwe, Africa and most other developing countries with concerns over food and environmental safety dominating the debate.

The overwrought debate about GMOs in Zimbabwe and Africa has seen supporters of the technology calling for its adoption using sober arguments while those harshly opposed have used full scare tactics.

Those opposed are largely worried about the excesses and dangers of an industrialised food system which uses modern biotechnology production methods.

Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Deputy Minister, Dr Godfrey Gandawa, was swift to counter Prof Chetsanga’s claims.

“The policy in Zimbabwe is that we are anti–GMO,” he said. “Our policy has not changed. Our current policy is that we are anti–GMO and the laws still exist (outlawing GMO food crops).”

However, Dr Gandawa said, the government was open to dialogue as a means of promoting understanding between scientists and the authorities on the matter.

He urged scientists to adopt appropriate strategies of engagement if they wanted the government to consider the adoption of GMOs that could beneficial to the country especially in the field of pharmaceuticals, bio-mining and the growing of GM cotton.

“If you want us to implement controversial policies, there is a better way of presenting them,” the Deputy Minister said.

“As government we need to fully understand the background of GMOs. Bt Cotton yes, we can consider because we are already putting on garments made from GM cotton. Pharmaceuticals, yes, because we are already taking anti-biotics developed using GM technologies.

“If you start from a point at the top, it will be taken as confrontational.

Bring your case in the right way and let’s discuss it.

Our policy is you should do it right, do it well, address food safety issues, address environmental issues.”

Another local biochemist said the “colourful rhetoric” about keeping Zimbabwe GMO-free should be balanced with what is happening globally in terms of technological advances.

She said if Zimbabwe doesn’t use science-based decision-making about adopting biotechnology, there will be economic ramifications.

“Debate on GMOs should be open and honest to promote transparent dialogue between our government and scientists,” she said.

According to a 2016 ISAAA report, the production of biotech crops increased 110-fold from 1996 with countries now growing the crops on 2,1 billion hectares worldwide.

The global value of the biotech seed market alone was US$15,8 billion in 2016.

A total of 26 countries, 19 developing and seven industrial grew biotech crops.

By 2016, at least four countries in Africa had in the past placed a GM crop on the market.

These included Egypt, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan.

But due to some temporary setback in Burkina Faso and Egypt, only South Africa and Sudan planted biotech crops on 2,8 million hectares

South Africa is one of the top 10 countries planting more than one million hectares in 2016 and continued to lead the adoption of biotech crops on the African continent.

Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria have transitioned from research to granting environmental release approvals while six others – Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Swaziland and Uganda — made significant progress towards completion of multi-location trials in readiness for considering commercial approval, ISAAA reported.

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