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9-Misc: Botswana scientists cautious about biotechnology



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TITLE:  Scientists cautious about biotechnology
SOURCE: Mmegi, Botswana, by Tuduetso Setsiba
        http://www.mmegi.bw/2005/August/Thursday25/784399566687.html
DATE:   25 Aug 2005

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Scientists cautious about biotechnology

A University of Botswana wildlife expert has said that the country should
concentrate on developing its own traditional production systems. Kabajan
Kaunda said in doing this, the country should tap what is relevant from the
developed world. He suggested that biotechnology should be treated with
caution.

He asserted that Botswana stands to benefit from agricultural biotechnology
especially in the area of crop production. “The understanding is that
biotechnology would reduce the major constraints to sustainable production
of food and cash crops,” he said.

Though this is still to be tested in Botswana, he said agricultural
biotechnology has the potential to lift the veil of poverty, malnutrition
and food insecurity from people in developing countries while ensuring
natural resource conservation. Like most of the African countries,
biotechnology is less likely to be compatible with traditional farming
methods in Botswana. Kaunda said traditional farming communities as well as
the civil society are likely to resist the introduction of biotechnology in
the country. “For the moment, we could handle it as a stimulating novel
research procedure with immense application potential. “Being a
fundamentally conservative society, one would be hesitant to summarise that
Batswana are ready to embrace biotechnology, he said.

Despite raging debate about its harmful effects, many people continue to eat
genetically modified food. Some do so on ignorance. A journal on
agricultural biotechnology indicated that about 60-70 percent of processed
foods contain at least one ingredient from a genetically engineered plant.
Kaunda said some biotech products have been under use for some time in
Botswana. This is a result of heavy dependence on agricultural products
from South Africa where biotechnology is extensively used. He said the
developed world is still averse to genetically modified foods. “The thrust
of the matter is that on any scientific development, the developed world is
far much ahead of Africa even with respect to public understanding.” He
pointed out that the more people understand science, the more they worry
about unintended consequences, which ultimately dictate whether one
consumes a product or not. To practise biotechnology in the country, Kaunda
said policy intervention is needed to ensure that it responds to the
priorities set for agriculture as well as the concerns of rural farmers. It
would be imperative to put up structures and resources that will deal with
unintended consequences. ”As a nation, we should muster the walking effort
first, lest we falter in this infectious technological stampede.
Biotechnology embodies the biggest biological experiment of our time.”
Though some preach scepticism when dealing with genetically modified foods,
there are those who are adamant that agricultural biotechonology will bring
more good to Botswana because of its harsh weather conditions. The country
has unreliable rainfall.

A microbiologist at the university of Botswana Dr Maitshwarelo Matsheka said
biotechnology would enable the farmers to come up with crops that will
resist drought and pest. “We can plough in larger scales and even sell to
neighbouring countries.” He explained that there is nothing mysterious
about genetically modified foods as proteins remain proteins and
carbohydrates would remain carbohydrates. “The ultimate goal for both the
scientist and the traditional breeders is to make food supply safer for the
consumers and the environment, therefore adding a new gene to a crop may
benefit growers and consumers.”

Agricultural biotechnology includes genetic engineering used to improve
plants, animals and micro- orgnanisms. Scientists do genetic engineering by
cutting and moving snippets of DNA from one plant, animal or microbe to
another through a process called gene splicing. This differs from
traditional crossbreeding techniques that simultaneously introduce many
genes.

Genetic engineering is a one gene for a specific desirable trait. Matsheka
said coming up with such crops would be advantageous as they will be able
to cross different varieties that could be resistant to pests and harsh
climatic conditions.

Carrying our research for genetically modified foods in Africa is often
hindered by lack of expertise, capacity and funding to develop and comply
with bio safety regulatory requirements. Matsheka called on the government
to train more people in this field. “Lack of manpower in this field is
still a major challenge.”



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