CHIMWEMWE MWALE, Livingstone
WHILE Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) continue to stir controversy in Zambia, other countries are using biotechnology to enhance agriculture and health sectors.
Biotechnology and its products can contribute significantly to the economic development of Zambia, especially in the areas of agriculture, health, environment and industry ‘birthing’, the need for the country to realign its priorities to modern biotechnology.
Accordingly, the biosafety and biotechnology policy has been revised to promulgate Zambia’s evolution to the current position on modern biotechnology.
This is to balance the need to use biotechnology in the country’s quest for socio-economic development and the need to protect animal health, the environment and biological diversity.
According to the Ministry of Higher Education’s, Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy document, approximately 18 million farmers worldwide planted biotech crops in 2015, of which about 90 percent were small scale farmers.
These farmers were from 28 different countries, with 20 being developing and eight industrialised.
The developing countries include Vietnam which commercialised maize with different characteristics in 2015 for the first time and Cuba, which planted biotech maize for the last two years.
Biotechnology in both circumstances has been used to improve yields, increase drought tolerance and produce insect resistance in one generation while conventional breeding techniques will take several years.
In Africa, some countries continue to make general progress on several fronts in biotechnology with countries like Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Sudan and Swaziland conducting confined field trials on cotton to control weeds and prevent insect attack.
Confined field trials are also being conducted on maize in countries such as Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. Other crops being researched on include wheat, rice, bananas, cassava, potatoes, sorghum and cow peas.
The trials focus on traits of high relevance facing the continent including drought, efficiency of nitrogen use, salt tolerance, nutritional enhancement and resistance to tropical pests and diseases.
Zambia has however, not commenced the production of GMOs. The country has adopted a precautionary principle as required by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety of GMOs and products.
Through this approach, Zambia developed the Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy of 2003, Biosafety Act number 10 of 2007 and relevant statutory instruments and guidelines.
Genetic modification to devise new products has not been fully applied because the focus has only been on application of biotechnology on human, animal and environmental protection.
Biotechnology has specifically been applied in disease diagnosis, classification of organisms and in tissue culture.
According to the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), the major contributing factor has been the absence of appropriate regulations and guidelines and inadequate human capital, dilapidated research and containment facilities.
And for NBA board chairperson Paul Zambezi, biotechnology in Zambia should be used as a practical intervention to sustain rural dependency on agriculture and forestry.
Dr Zambezi said in an interview that biotechnology should not only be used for the development of the controversial GMOs.
This was on the side-lines of the stakeholders’ consultative meeting on the Zambian Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy.
He said biotechnology interventions to sustain rural livelihoods is long overdue because of the threats posed by effects of climate change such as drought and floods among others.
Dr Zambezi said biotechnology should be seen as an effective way of improving lives through boosting food production.
“Some areas have high acidity levels in the soil and others are experiencing drought but through biotechnology, we can breed crops that are resistant to drought among others.
“Our people on the grassroots should be helped through biotechnology, forests can also be regenerated through the use of tissue culture from tree bucks, trees and other plants can be manipulated and there is no harm,” he said.
He said NBA will ensure that biosafety measures are put in place to ensure the environment is protected.
And Zambia Agro Ecological Alliance chairman Robert Chimambo said biotechnology should also be used to improve soils for sustainable agriculture.
Mr Chimambo said in an interview that some microbes in the soil have been killed owing to the application of fertilisers and agro chemicals.
“Let us help small scale farmers to improve their soils and agriculture output. Improved soils translate into quality agriculture produce and nutrition which will help us avoid stunted growth among children,” he said.
Minister of Higher Education Nkandu Luo says there is need to significantly invest in science as it is a number one pillar for socio-economic development.
Professor Luo said President Lungu wants a prosperous country and that this can be achieved through investment and effective application of science.
Speaking at the same meeting, the minister said it is sad that Zambia like most African countries with abundant natural resources is underdeveloped because it has not significantly invested in science such as biotechnology.
Professor Luo challenged the NBA to undertake a rigorous awareness campaign for people to accept biotechnology and related issues.
“We have political parties that do not want progress and would not want progress in science. This is why you should make the policy acceptable before its implementation,” she said.
She also challenged media institutions to identify journalists who can specialise in science reporting to articulate and give prominence to science-related issues in the media.
And Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa senior biotechnology policy advisor Getachew Belay said the utilisation of biotech products, especially GMOs, should be implemented with a proper biosafety regulatory system.
Dr Belay said GMOs continue to cause controversy and that stakeholders should address the concerns about biotechnology policies within the context of Zambia’s specific developmental needs and aspirations.
Following Zambia’s refusal of donated maize which was genetically modified, there is a general recognition that modern biotechnology has advanced worldwide.
Zambia cannot afford to ignore the benefits of this technology as statistics indicate that 40 percent of children under the age of five are stunted, while 17 percent are severely stunted.
According to the NBA, this scenario is as a result of changes in nutritional status since there is no longer sufficient or appropriate food to maintain the child’s recommended daily allowance of nutritional requirements to enhance growth.
This has been compounded by low productivity for most agricultural products thereby negatively affecting food security at household level due to droughts and sometimes pest attacks on crops.
Biotechnology can therefore not be ruled out in averting situations that threaten food security.