BENEDICT TEMBO, Lusaka
THE Cotton Development Trust (CDT) in Mazabuka is eager to begin confined trials for genetically modified cotton.
The country’s premier research cotton station wants to conduct the trials at the CDT premises in Magoye before they go multi location.
Martin Simasiku, a cotton breeder at CDT, says the confined trials can take up to six years for Government to approve the testing of Bacillus thuringiensis (bt) cotton in multi-locations of the country.
Bt cotton is the source bacteria for the gene that confers resistance to the African Bollworm insect that attacks cotton.
But farmers like Mwaanga Sichikolo of Dumba settlement in Magoye have to wait a little longer before they could see bt cotton being tested there because currently the country has no regulations for research in place.
“Farming is a business, bt cotton is very profitable because it is free from pests [African Bollworm] attack. Cotton farmers incur a lot on pest and weed control,” Mr Sichikolo says.
National Biosafety Authority acting registrar Lackson Tonga says CDT’s intention is okay but the intention to start conducting trials is not yet backed by law.
“Currently we do not yet have regulations /standards/guidelines for research in place. In essence, such institutions do need to register an institutional biosafety committee with us before commencing research activities,” Mr Tonga says.
For the CDT to begin the trials, first there is need to amend/revise the Biosafety Act no: 10 of 2007 particularly the liability clause.
“The reasons are varied ranging from misinterpretation (by stakeholders on such terms as “prohibition” where it is assumed GMOs are “banned”, other than that you require to seek permission to undertake any gene modification- related activity) to other issues related to labeling of GMOs in a prescribed manner (rather than allowing for labeling that indicates that regardless of the way the sentence is, it still means the product could have GMOs in it),” Mr Tonga says.
For the CDT field trials to go ahead, some Statutory Instruments have to be signed.
The SIs scheduled to be put in place include the following:
SI on Contained Use
SI on handling and transportation
SI on crops and livestock of strategic importance to National Food Security
SI on identification and labeling
“Without that, I don’t think we can move as intended. It’s one of the requirements for the technology providers to come into the country and partner with us,” says CDT director Lwisya Silwimba.
Mr Silwimba says the CDT does not require a lot of land to do confined trials, suggesting that 10 hectares, which the institution has, is enough.
Apart from Government regulation to start the trials, the CDT needs to set up an institutional biosafety committee (IBC) comprising scientists and some other important members such as cotton farmers.
“Then IBC needs to be approved by the National Biosafety Authority. After the IBC is formed, that’s when we can start the application for trials. The IBC is responsible for carrying out risk assessment before, during and after the trials, so currently we still haven’t formed the IBC,” Mr Simasiku says.
CDT is yet to determine how many varieties to start with because when setting up the trial, the institution has to arrange with the owners of the technology.
“They [seed companies] can give us two or three of their varieties to test against ours,” Mr Simasiku says.
CDT is intent to do trials for the sake of the cotton farmers who are incurring huge operational costs in cultivating the crop.
Mr Simasiku says number one is to reduce cost of sprays which reduces gross margins.
“Instead of spraying between 10-12 times depending on the pest infestation, farmers may be expected to spray at least about three sprays. It also reduces the amount of chemical sippage into the soil thereby damaging the environment,” he says.
Mr Silwimba says the proposed roadmap for the trials is to introduce the gene into our varieties.
Before starting the confined trials, there is need to do a risk assessment to determine whether the technology is safe to both the humans, animals etc.
A product of GMO technology should be regulated before it is released to the environment.
Key to starting trials is conducting awareness at policy level, farmer level and communities as a sure way to overcome obstacles.
The CDT is also keen to learn from countries such as Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Malawi, which have advanced or rather successfully implemented the technology and how they have managed the obstacles.
“Ethiopia is also ahead of us. We could learn from them as well. Otherwise, Malawi has moved from confined trials to out of station and have also started Bt trials in cowpeas, which is edible. In a few years’ time they will be able to commercialise the cotton, and the seed might find its way into Zambia through the Eastern Province border,” Mr Silwimba says.
Sudan is one of the few countries in Africa that have commercialised the use of Bt cotton after seeing its potential for the past two years.
Cotton boll worm has been controlled by use of Bt cotton. This has reduced the number of sprays from 12 to about two or three sprays on the crop resulting in reduction of costs of inputs and labour.
Small-scale farmers are growing both irrigated (by use of canals) and rain-fed cotton achieving yields of six tonnes (irrigated) and 2.7 tonnes (rain-fed) seed cotton, respectively.
There has been a significant improvement of the farmers’ welfare through the acquisition of assets and better houses.
They are able to send children to school from Bt cotton farming over a period of two years.
The end result is increased gross margins compared to the conventional varieties.
Patrick Chikoti, a researcher with the Zambia Agriculture Research Institute at Mount Makulu Research Station says Malawi and Sudan have made strides in trying to understand advanced biotechnology as far as confined research is concerned.
“Carrying out research in biotechnology requires a lot of resources both human and physical infrastructure. The two countries have had challenges in managing pests in cotton for Sudan, and banana and cow pea for Malawi. I think if they succeed, they will greatly benefit through reduced costs of production related to the inputs such as pesticides,” Dr Chikoti, who is in the plant protection and quarantine division, says.
Dr Chikoti says if Zambia does not invest in biotechnology, the country will lag behind.
“Genetic engineering is applied in many areas e.g. bioremediation of degraded or polluted environments, production of some medicines, and protection of crops and so on. Some of technology may be very useful to our local environment in addressing some of the gaps that we face in the country,” he says
Dr Chikoti has called for continued sensitisation of the general public and building strong linkages with the media.
“The media is important in as far as information dissemination is concerned. Without it, it will be difficult to get the correct information across the general citizenry on biotechnological issues,” Dr Chikoti says.
He says research institutions are doing what they can but can do more in the area of biotechnology given the necessary support.