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9-Misc: Zimbabwe scientists warn on biotechnology

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TITLE:  Scientists Warn On Biotechnology
SOURCE: Zimbabwe Standard, by Deborah-Fay Ndhlovu
DATE:   12 Feb 2006

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Scientists Warn On Biotechnology

ZIMBABWE is moving towards embracing biotechnology in a development that
shows a shift in government' s attitude but scientists have warned that
the decision could divide the country.

The country has been treading on fears of side effects of biotechnology
on health and the environment with the government leading a campaign
against its use

But when it rolled out a red carpet for Professor Thomas DeGregori, a
visiting lecturer from the US sentiment was that it had changed its view.

The Biosafety Board is also being transformed into a National
Biotechnology Authority to facilitate the adoption and use of biotechnology.

Scientists, however, warn that it still has to convince the public on the
safety of using biotechnology.

A local scientist who declined to be named said: "There is no question on
the importance of using biotechnology especially when it comes to issues
of food security. The problem would be convincing the end user given all
the hype and controversy surrounding the subject."

Biotechnology refers to the scientific process of manipulating living
organisms. It covers cloning and the development of genetically modified
organisms, among others.

Researchers are themselves divided on the way forward given the
indications that there could be transference of genes from Genetically
Modified Organisms to the natural environment, threatening the existence
of flora and fauna.

The dean of the Faculty of Science with the National University of
Science and Technology, Dr Eddie Mwenje, said results of a research on
the possibility of introducing genetically modified sorghum were not

"The issue was to understand whether genes could escape into the wild. We
have started doing our analysis and results so far show a higher
possibility of genes being transferred to the natural environment,"
Mwenje said but maintained that he is still in support of developing GMOs.

"The impact it would have on insects and wild animals would be huge
because it's changing their nutrient components."

Scientists raised fears that biotechnology could compromise the immune
system, increase the probability of developing new diseases and activate
genes for plant toxins causing allergic reactions. The business community
on the other hand is worried that exports could fall.

However, other scientists said using biotechnology especially in
agriculture would increase productivity and reduce famine.

They also said that forbidding the use of biotechnology in Zimbabwe would
mean taking DNA vaccines and insulin for diabetics off the shelves.

"Biotechnology can be deployed to address fundamental challenges that
include drought, pest diseases, climatic change and nutrition (quality of
our diet). For example we can come up with a programme where maize can be
modified to provide additional nutrients other than carbohydrates," said
the Registrar of the Biosafety Board, Abisai Mafa.

"Food insecurity is a reality but with biotechnology a farmer can grow
more on small pieces of land and have disposable income at his table.
Think of weasels and how much grain is lost at the post-harvest stage.
Crops rot but if we can fish out those problem genes that can be delayed.
If we produce a better quality product that means we can be more
competitive on the international market and get better prices and foreign
currency to import what we do not manufacture locally."

But even then scientists believe that it would be hard to implement the
regulatory framework.

Mwenje said: "Farmers would have to be taught before biotechnology can be
released. The best regulation would be to restrict the use of
biotechnology to some regions but that approach has to be done cautiously
because even then people can just transport GMOs to other regions without


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