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TITLE:  Zambia Develops Biotechnology Strategy
SOURCE: Environment News Service, by Singy Hanyona
DATE:   Apr 29, 2003

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Zambia Develops Biotechnology Strategy

LUSAKA, Zambia, April 29, 2003 (ENS) - Seven months after Zambia rejected
genetically modified foods and banned American transgenic food donations
from entering its territory, the Zambian government has developed a
National Biosafety and Biotechnology Strategy Plan.

The five year plan, from 2003 to 2007, will take care of the unwarranted
proliferation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the country. It
also sets the pace for Zambia to develop biosafety regulations to protect
the country's unique biodiversity.

Dr. Paul Zambezi, director of science and technology in the Ministry of
Science, Technology and Vocational Training, says a national biosafety
and biotechnology policy has also been developed, pending approval and
adoption by the Zambian Cabinet.

Dr. Zambezi says the country learned bitter lessons during the debate
over genetically modified foods, which prompted the government to design
its own mechanisms for the handling of biosafety and biotechnology matters.

[leaders] Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa greets James Morris (left), UN
special envoy for humanitarian needs in Southern Africa, and Stephen
Lewis of Canada, special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, at the start of
their two day visit to Zambia in January. (Photos by Brenda Barton
courtesy World Food Programme) "It was a good in that we realized our
weaknesses in addressing GMOs. Our minds were opened. We now need to
build capacity in biosafety and biotechnology," said Dr. Zambezi during a
national consultative workshop in Lusaka to discuss the National
Biosafety and Biotechnology Strategy Plan (NBBSP).

The new biosafety and biotechnogy framework identifies seven core program
areas. These include environment and biodiversity, which aims at
conserving the genetic diversity of Zambia's crops. Other program areas
are livestock, fish, and the control of environmental pollution.

The plan also aims at enacting legislation that will govern the research,
development, and utilization of genetically modified organisms.

One area of research and development is aimed at protecting the
population against preventable diseases and developing of capacity to
diagnose tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS and malaria. Zambia has one of the
highest adult prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS in the world - 21 percent.

Dr. Wilson Mwenya, a geneticist who chairs the NBBSP Drafting Committee
said implementation of the plan will gobble an estimated US$40 million.

"We need funds for the program. Human resources and infrastructure alone
require US$18 million," said Dr. Mwenya, who is also director of the
National Science and Technology Council.

The government has since acknowledged that technology, though not new to
Zambia, is a costly venture.

Minister of Science, Technology and Vocational Training Abel Chambeshi
says biotechnology requires a lot of investment. "Technology is very
expensive. We need investments in various fields of competence, such as
microbiology, biochemistry and biophysics," Chambeshi said.

Scientists have defined biotechnology as the integration of the
biological and engineering sciences in order to enable the use of living
organisms such as cells, to modify or change certain other living
organisms for particular uses. For example, through biotechnology, it is
now possible to come up with new crop varieties that are resistant to
disease, drought, cold, heat, and resistance to insects, tolerance to
herbicides or both.

Many experts believe that biotechnology is bound to become one of the
keys to the future of developing countries, since genetic engineering of
crops may make it possible to narrow the gap between food production and
population increase.

[food] Woman collects World Food Programme food rations on the outskirts
of Lusaka. International food aid has been distributed to hundreds of
thousands of the most vulnerable Zambians, helping to prevent a
humanitarian disaster. (Photo by Brenda Barton courtesy WFP) Following
the drought last year, 2.8 million Zambians required food aid up until
the end of March 2003, according to the United Nations World Food
Programme (WFP). This figure will fall in April as the harvest starts
across the country, but hundreds of thousands of people will continue to
need food aid, especially in the south, the agency says.

Although Zambia's overall harvest is forecast to improve this year, parts
of the southern region are facing another year of food shortages due to
unfavorable weather conditions. Erratic rainfall resulted in the loss of
significant crops, while pockets of the country also lost their crops due
to flooding when the rains finally did come.

Currently, the only whole grain in U.S. food aid donations that might be
bio-engineered is maize [corn], according to the U.S. Agency for
International Development. While the maize in food aid is not intended
for planting, the shipment of whole grain commodities has raised issues
about the potential environmental impacts, should the grain be planted in
recipient countries.

The U.S. aid agency says bio-engineered crops planted by American
farmers, and later sent as food aid, have been "rigorously reviewed for
environmental and food safety" by all relevant U.S. regulatory agencies.
The environmental issues considered in the regulatory review include the
possibility of increased weediness of the crop plant, cross-pollinating
of bio-engineered crops with closely related wild or domesticated plant
species, and impact on non-target organisms.