Genetically Modified Crop Technology in Zimbabwe: the debate

"At the moment, scientific consensus remains that GMO crops pose no danger to health"

FOOD, politics and health have once again come together in a media-friendly cocktail. Two thought-pieces with opposing views on Genetically Modified Crops were recently published in the Zimbabwe media: one by Dr. Edward Mabaya, a Cornell University academic, who argues for the adoption of Genetically Modified (GM) seed technology in Zimbabwe, the other by Mr. Tobaiwa Mudede and Mr. Richard Hondo who have argued against the introduction and marketing of GM crops technology, and thus sustaining the current ban on using GM seeds.

Dr. Mabaya argues that GM foods are safe, represent an economic opportunity and are already in our food chain. As such, he reasons, preventing Zimbabwean farmers from adopting the technology is not justifiable. Mudede and Hondo, on the other hand, argue that the risks from adoption of GM crops are far too high to justify adoption in Zimbabwe. They cite medical complications that may arise from GM foods and seeds to support their argument. They also appeal to a moral/religious arguments regarding alteration of genes.

Who is right?

In the interests of full disclosure I should say that I am familiar with both Dr. Mabaya and Mr. Mudede - so I know that there are intelligent, thoughtful people on both sides of the current debate.

Mudede, Hondo and Mabaya are due credit for drawing public attention to this issue. The GMO debate is deeply intertwined with issues of equity, ethics, economics, health, trade and environment. If we are to imagine a more sustainable future for our Agriculture, we need to navigate this difficult terrain, hopefully using the tools that science has to offer. I am hoping, through this note, to broaden the perspectives on GM technology and hopefully offer an equally valid view about where and to whom we want to turn the future of our food over to.

Mudede and Hondo’s assertion that GMOs pose medical danger is alarming. Many consumer advocates have blamed GMOs for medical complications. They cite wide-scale funding by agri-business for studies to prove the safety of GMOs and discredit dissenting claims as ‘proof’ that the evidence is biased and business has something to hide. However, the medical complications claims proposed by consumer advocates are exceedingly hard to validate. Indeed, the 2004 research by the journal Nature Biotechnology disproved some of these claims. At the moment the scientific consensus remains that GMO foods pose no dangers.

Mudede and Hondo avoid Dr. Mabaya’s argument that Zimbabwe’s policy is to the detriment of consumers and poor farmers who need protection. Dr. Mabaya questions the fairness of a policy that allows importation of GM foods, while undermining and even criminalizing the use of GM seed crops by local farmers. He raises a critical issue that goes to the core of the current conundrum. The European Union has found itself in a similar conundrum. On the one hand, the European Union allows imports of (cheaper) stock feeds from Brazil, Argentina and the USA. By some estimates, up to a third of the EU’s livestock industry is reliant on feedstuffs produced from GM crops. On the other hand, the European Union takes a precautionary approach when it comes to commercialization of the technology.

Mudede and Hondo’s quasi-moral argument is also interesting but less persuasive. They propose that altering the genetic make-up of crops is morally objectionable as it is against God’s intended relationship between nature and mankind. Irrespective of the merits of this view, the fact of the matter is that humans have altered plant genomes over the course of agricultural history. Maize, tomatoes and wheat are far different to their original make-up because of selective breeding.

It is difficult to decide which way to go when public policy and science are at loggerheads. Scientific consensus is that GMO crops pose no danger. Yet public policy appears to err on the side of caution. It is not surprising that the issue of GM crops is mired in controversy. It transcends the fields of law, agriculture, health, trade, ethics, politics and environment. As such, unless there is deliberate efforts at bringing those fields together, the likelihood of controversy are high. So what to do?

First, after several years of implementing land reform, the time is right to take a deeper reflection on Zimbabwe’s public policy goals for agriculture and its strategic direction, noting that the food markets of tomorrow are fundamentally different from today’s… not because agriculture has changed so much, but because what we are applying agriculture to has changed dramatically. Zimbabwe is subject to the same 21st century challenges as the rest of the world. It must compete on global markets, it must deal with climate change, water stresses, feed a burgeoning population, meet ever-growing quality standards and navigate the same risks as every other country. These directional shifts need reflection in our public policy.

Second, Zimbabwe needs better understanding of the risks it faces and to get risk regulation right. That requires bringing together actors in the regulation of health, safety and environmental risks. Zimbabwe’s regulatory politics and policies very much resemble those of Europe. "They are often politicized, highly contentious and characterized by a suspicion of science and a mistrust of both government and industry." In contrast, GMO regulators in the USA have worked cooperatively with industry and been supportive of technological innovation, while non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have enjoyed little access to the policy process.

Third, a SADC-wide perspective and approach would be immensely beneficial. In its absence Zimbabwe will need to define its own formal (legalistic?) and open regulatory process, with industry and NGOs enjoying considerable access and influence. The decisions of regulatory agencies will need to be politically visible and subject to extensive public review - and policy making reflecting a scientific consensus between actors in regulation of health, safety and environmental risks. The current atmosphere of mistrust, political defense and appropriation of policy by experienced bureaucrats and their established advisory networks is not in Zimbabwe’s long term interest.

Then there is the economics of growing and producing food. The economic question is whether preventing use of GM seeds is rendering Zimbabwean farmers and agricultural products less competitive and how economically reasonable and profitable it is for farmers to plant GM crops if they can be sued because of cross-wind pollination. Further, is the quality and quantity of food on our supermarket shelves a reflection of competitive advantages enjoyed by South African farmers as a result of GM crops? Data from Brazil, Argentina and North America suggests there are economic and environmental gains to be made from adopting GM crops, but that needs to be interrogated in a Zimbabwe context.

A fifth area concerns the rule of law, particularly the policy, legal, administrative and technical instruments to address environment and human health. That includes institutional issues, regulations and guidelines for hands-on work on genetic modification and risk assessment and management procedures, mechanisms for monitoring and inspection and a system to provide information to stakeholders and for public participation.

Finally, scientific consensus is that GM food does not pose any harm. However, the risk mitigation measures mentioned above presuppose the existence of well-functioning scientific capabilities, including for monitoring and inspection. Given the controversy surrounding GM technology, Zimbabwe would benefit from strengthening science capacity and building robust evidence base to enable monitoring of impacts and trends. Use of science and hard evidence represents intelligent policy making, can save lives, reduce poverty and help improve performance. The result should approximate socially optimal outcomes.

Rather than seeking to sustain the current ban, Zimbabwe stands to gain from engaging in the debate and framing the terms of its participation in the commercialization of the technology. Four African countries - Burkina Faso, Egypt, Sudan and South Africa - have fully commercialized GM crops. Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda are conducting field trials of biotech crops, the final step before full approval for commercialization.

Some might think that Zimbabwe need not be worried about these issues and about the shifting ground because we are exceptional and will succeed no matter what. I happen to think Zimbabwe is exceptional in many ways and has often punched above its weight in most fields of endeavor. It is, after all, the country that introduced SR 52 to the world and, through its institutions of research and higher learning, pioneered other breakthroughs in Agriculture. But even with such a rich tradition, faced with formidable odds, Zimbabwe needs to rise to the challenge and determine the terms of the development, adoption and management of GM technologies.

Maxwell Gomera