STAKEHOLDERS from various sectors convened in the tourist capital Livingstone last week to fine-tune revision of the Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy, and the Biosafety Act of 2003.
The policy was formulated in 2003 following the country’s rejection of a donation of genetically modified yellow maize.
Government dispatched six scientists all over the world to study the efficacy of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), hence the formulation of the policy, which later culminated into an Act.
Fifteen years down the line, it has become imperative to review the policy and Act taking into account current and emerging issues.
Over the years, Government has come up with regulations, created the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), created a secretariat, put in place a board with scientific and advisory as well as administration and finance committees.
Government has through the NBA been consultative all along, as evidenced by the Livingstone meeting, which was attended by representatives of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa through the Alliance for Commodity Trade in East and Southern Africa (ACTESA) and the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD).
ACTESA has been supportive of the country’s biotechnology and biosafety journey by rendering moral and financial support to the NBA.
However, the presence of NEPAD representatives Olalekan Akinbo, the senior programme officer at the African Biosafety Network of Expertise, and his principal programme officer, Silas Obukosia, did not seemingly sit well with some civil society groups, who insinuated that the quest to reform the biotechnology and biosafety Act was being driven by foreign interests.
It was at this point that NBA registrar Lackson Tonga rose to strongly object to the insinuations because NEPAD, just like COMESA, is Zambia’s development partner and it interacts with Zambian institutions at various levels.
“Let me protect our guests,” remarked Mr Tonga.
NEPAD experts shared their knowledge and experience on biotechnology and biosafety issues in relation to the African Union’s (AU’s) Agenda 2063, the Maputo Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security with a commitment to the allocation of at least 10 percent of national budgetary resources to agriculture and rural development policy implementation within five years.
The Malabo Declaration, on the other hand, recognised the seriousness of the African food and nutrition situation and the efforts of member states towards alleviating the challenge.
That is where biotechnology comes in to guarantee food and nutrition security.
NEPAD, just like COMESA, has never seen biotechnology as the ultimate solution to the world’s food crisis but one of the options on the table, acknowledging that every technology has its own pitfalls.
Getachew Belay, the ACTESA senior biotechnology policy advisor, said COMESA is cognisant of the controversies that exist around GMOs even in countries where regulations exist, adding that utilisation or uptake of GMOs or products cannot be implemented without the required regulations.
To this end, Zambia will always apply the precautionary principles irrespective of the outcome of the on-going consultations on the new proposed policy and remains open to input from other stakeholders.
Zambia is in a global village and cannot continue living the way it did in 2003, when issues of GMOS were alien to the country.
Therefore, it should not worry anybody to see the proposed Biotechnology and Biosafety policy being discussed.
Reforming the policy is not back-tracking from the country’s earlier position of the non-GMO use in agriculture.
Zambia, like most countries in the world, can continue having parallel technologies, with those sticking to organic farming as response to climate change and low agriculture yields while others should be free to adopt genetic technology.
The use of GMO agriculture has never been counter-productive.
Those opposed to GMOs have never opposed Government for importing anti-retroviral therapy which is made from genetic engineering, just as they do not stop diabetic patients from using insulin, which is also genetically engineered.
There are several ways of addressing the effects of climate change, and genetic engineering is one of the positive interventions.
For now, civil society groups should hold their fire and desist from accusing Government of pushing an agenda from foreign multinationals or forces.
After all, even the same civil society groups purporting to be serving the interests of Zambians are also donor-aided.
That is why they can go round the country effortlessly, including jumping from one plane to another attending international meetings.
When the civil society groups which purport to champion the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity become sober, they will heed Minister of Higher Education Nkandu Luo’s counsel.
Professor Luo says the pillar number one for economic development is science.
“Time has come for all of us in Zambia to sing science,” Prof. Luo said in Livingstone.
And singing science entails embracing biotechnology for the benefit of citizens.
The author is editorials editor at the Zambia Daily Mail