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9-Misc: GM crops beckon as Zimbabwe seeks farm growth

------------------------------- GENET-news -------------------------------

TITLE:  Zimbabwe: GM Crops Beckon As Zimbabwe Seeks Farm Growth
SOURCE: Panos, UK, by Kudzai Chingarande
DATE:   13 Mar 2006

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Zimbabwe: GM Crops Beckon As Zimbabwe Seeks Farm Growth

Farming with GMOs is banned in Zimbabwe, not only because of potential
health and environment risks, but also for economic reasons - because the
European Union does not import any food containing GMOs.

But in February 2006 a well-known American advocate of biotechnology,
including genetic modification, visited Harare on a lecture tour to urge
the country to embrace biotechnology. Prof Tom De Gregori of the
University of Houston, who came at the invitation of President Robert
Mugabe, said Zimbabwe could turn around its fortunes by applying
biotechnology to agriculture and health.

Pro-biotech lecture

Delivering a lecture at the University of Zimbabwe, De Gregori said
African countries should follow the examples of China and Malaysia and
improve agricultural productivity through biotechnology. "Biotechnology
results in increased soil protection, reduction in pests and increased
yields," he said.

The comments have prompted speculation that GM plants may be introduced
in Zimbabwe.

So far, there has been little national debate on this issue, although
some farmers are aware of the fears associated with GMOs, including the
contamination of non-GM plants.

Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, it is the responsibility of
governments to inform and consult the people before allowing the
introduction of GMOs. Yet, in practice, the Zimbabwean government has
done little to consult farmers - at a time when such consultations are
most needed. A Bill apparently seeking to promote the safe application of
biotechnology is awaiting introduction before the House of Assembly.

The draft Bill seeks to establish a National Biotechnology Authority - a
statutory body that will be responsible for managing the import,
research, development, production and use of biotechnology in Zimbabwe.

The proposed law also seeks to ensure that the introduction of
biotechnology does not have adverse effects on health, environment,
economy, national security and social norms and values.

Fund to boost cotton

Under the Bill, a National Biotechnology Fund will be established to
promote the marketing and production of transgenic crops as well as
research into modern biotechnology. It empowers the Minister for Science
and Technology Development to impose levies on producers, processors and
buyers of any biotechnological product - money that will go into the
Biotechnology Fund.

The move is aimed at boosting the production of mainly cash crops,
notably cotton, which in turn could help beef up Zimbabwe's dwindling
foreign currency reserves.

"Our rate of uptake of the upcoming biotechnology is really not
encouraging as biotechnology is poised to revolutionalise the way we do
business through increased food production, which will also be exported
to boost foreign currency reserves," says Science and Technology
Development Minister, Dr Olivia Muchena.

But, she admits, "there are also concerns about biotechnology that GMOs
may not be safe to eat; these concerns need to be discussed openly".

Enter Chinese firms...

Experts also point to the potential role of Chinese firms in rolling out
GM crops. Chinese companies have set up in a big way in Zimbabwe's
countryside and President Mugabe, facing increasing isolation from
Western governments, has adopted a 'Look East' policy aimed at
facilitating investments from China and other Asian countries.

"Zimbabwe will continue turning to the East as we seek to explore growth
opportunities and strengthen economic ties," the President said recently.

Zimbabwe and China have also sealed several economic deals that would see
the Chinese funding the production of flue-cured tobacco and cotton among
other products. As a result cotton industry sources are predicting a huge
increase in production this year - around 750,000 kg compared to just
200,000 kg last year.

But there are fears that these Chinese-run farms may not be subject to
strict biosafety controls. For example, there are reports that following
the entry of Chinese and other foreign firms into farming, some farmers
have held illegal field trials with Bt cotton without an operational
resistance management plan.

And Western multinationals too

The Chinese aren't the only ones waiting in the wings. In 1998, Monsanto,
the world's largest agribiotech company, planted Bt cotton seeds without
official permission. But the Ministry of Land discovered it and ordered
the crop to be burnt before it could flower.

Syngenta, a major Swiss biotechnology multinational, will also watch the
outcome of the debate on the biotechnology Bill. Syngenta has a
significant financial stake in Seed Co, Zimbabwe's largest seed producer,
whose spokeswoman Marjorie Mutemererwa says she believes transgenic crops
would enrich farmers.

"I do not see anything wrong with controlling the seed market because we
strive to come up with the best product. In fact farmers will benefit and
ensure food self-sufficiency for Zimbabwe. We must grow seeds that we are
sure of," Mutemererwa says.

Over the past five years, Zimbabwe has had to cope with a string of poor
harvests of maize, forcing it to import the grain from South Africa,
Argentina and Brazil among other countries.

But the promise of achieving food self-sufficiency needs to be weighed
against the possible negative effects using GMOs.

Legalising GM crops, for instance, could compromise Zimbabwe's exports to
the European Union: the country enjoys a preferential arrangement by
which it can export up to 9,100 tons of GM-free beef to the EU every
year. For Zimbabwe, which has been facing a severe shortage of foreign
currency, this export is vital.

No debate but many views

Although there has been no public debate as yet, there is a wide range of
views among key Zimbabweans involved in agriculture policy.

Lands, Land Reform and Resettlement Minister Didymus Mutasa says Zimbabwe
is suspicious of GMOs, mainly for health reasons.

"We will not import GMO food. We have not changed policy and will not in
the near future. Our policy not to import unmilled maize [because GM
maize may be mixed in and could be planted] is steadfast, and we continue
to maintain it. It has not been reviewed and the Cabinet has not changed
its position," says Mutasa.

Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union president Davison Mugabe said farmers
would support anything as long as it enhanced productivity. "We want our
scientists to come clear on GMOs, whether they are harmful or not, and
advise us accordingly. We do not want a biased approach," he says.

Davison Mugabe says he believes transgenic seeds are a major problem
until proven otherwise, and adds that many others are of the same view.

Out in the country, farmers too have been weighing the pros and cons of
GMO crops. Town Chingarande, whose farm is located 500 km west of Harare,
sees major advantages in planting GM crops, making him a rare voice on a
continent where the technology has struggled to find favour.

"They help to increase your yields and reduce your input costs. If you
have a crop that is resistant to being eaten by pests you don't have to
spend money on spraying with insecticide," he says.

The main concern appears to be over environmental contamination. Dr Eddie
Mwenje of the National University of Science and Technology was recently
quoted in the press saying: "We have started doing our analysis and
results so far show a higher possibility of genes being transferred to
the natural environment".

'Caution needed' - Joseph Made

Influential agriculture Minister Dr Joseph Made says there is need to
exercise caution in introducing GMOs - the wholesale introduction of GMO
foods, he says, might cause irreparable damage to crops and soil fertility.

"If we just introduce GMOs without first carrying out extensive research
we might end up regretting it. As you know there is no precision in
science. Mistakes might happen, so we need to introduce them gradually
and after doing serious research and this is where Africa has been
lacking," he says.

"The researchers should include health personnel, who would come in to
look into things like allergies and other related issues. Consumers also
determine how much we should produce - hence the need to be cautious when
tampering with nature."

"My concern is on the production side - that anything we do with GMOs
should not destroy our biodiversity," Made says.

There is little doubt that Zimbabwe and other southern African countries
are being groomed by industry as potential candidates for GM crops. But
there is uncertainty over what will follow if these crops are introduced
- or if multinational corporations wrest control of the seed market.

European NGO Network on Genetic Engineering

Hartmut MEYER (Mr)
news & information

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