Biotech crops tempt Zimbabwe

Grass not always greener: India has called for a moratorium on genetically modified seed until further research is done. (AFP)

Grass not always greener: India has called for a moratorium on genetically modified seed until further research is done. (AFP)

On a cold Tuesday night in Harare, Zimbabwe, in a cement-floored venue called The Book Café, a crowd gathered to hear a debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

There is a moratorium on GM farming in the country and GM food aid is allowed into Zimbabwe only on condition that it is milled immediately, to prevent contamination of local crop varieties.

But many see the increased yields promised by commercial GMO farming as the answer to Zimbabwe's agricultural problems.

Offstage, a stark white screen bore a projected image of deformed lab rats, cautionary evidence of the threat of a GM diet.

The audience quickly filled the hundred or so white plastic chairs facing the low stage. Eventually, even the standing room at the back and sides of the venue was crowded.

The event was organised by Food Matters Zimbabwe, a volunteer group which aims to disseminate information about food production in the country.

The facilitator, Sam Moyo, who is the director of the African Institute of Agrarian Studies, introduced the debate by placing it within the context of post-land-reform Zimbabwe and the pressing question of how to increase productivity, feed the country and give emerging small farmers access to international markets.

But the debate soon became an argument – albeit a polite one – about the scientific soundness of pro- and anti-GM views.

Evidence and misinformation
Arguing in support of the use of GMOs was retired University of Zimbabwe scientist Dr Ian Robertson – now with Agri-Biotech Zimbabwe, a company developing and supplying GM crops. He said science had proved that GMO farming was a safe way to enhance agricultural productivity.
He claimed the anti-GMO movement was ill-informed, using baseless claims and alarmist, emotive arguments to ­further its cause.

His debating partner, Professor Idah Sithole, also a scientist at the University of Zimbabwe, adamantly dismissed concerns about the health risks associated with GMO crops, blaming faulty science, anecdotal evidence and misinformation.

To illustrate her point, she referred to the opponents' picture of the malformed lab rats and cited studies that showed those rats were prone to tumours, whether fed GM grains or not.

The other side, comprising the Agricultural Research Council's Isiah Mharapara and a spokesperson from the Community Technology Development Trust, Andrew Mushita, highlighted some of the suspected dangers of GM crops, the need for more thorough research and the potential threat to food security posed by seed monopolies like Monsanto.

An eloquent speaker, Mharapara did indeed appeal to the audience's emotions.But judging from the laughs and applause from spectators, his efforts were well received and the audience largely seemed to support his view that commercial GMO farming should not be permitted without more vigorous investigation into the possible health risks and long-term threats to food security.

He drew further applause with his argument that the poor agricultural yields in Zimbabwe did not represent a need for greater genetic manipulation of crops, but rather better farm management.

The question and answer period revealed a diverse group of people very engaged with the topic. There were environmentalists and scientists, rural farmers and concerned consumers. Some claimed no education, while others boasted postgraduate degrees. Concern was again raised about GMOs' effects on human health, dependence on seed monopolies and pest resistance.

Critics also mentioned evidence from other developing countries that the promises of the GMO manufacturers were not realised for small farmers and even OPV (open pollinated variety) seeds could result in reduced yields in subsequent plantings due to cross contamination.

One speaker raised the point that organic and genetically unaltered crops were in demand in rich markets abroad, so keeping crops unmodified would increase market value in the long run.

Heads nodded in support of this and other arguments to keep Zimbabwe GM free, but this sentiment might change as the country is attracted to GM technology as a promised silver bullet for  Zimbabwe's serious productivity shortfall. For now, though, the debate continues in cafés and in homes, as it does in the Cabinet, while the moratorium remains in place.

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