AS agricultural and environmental experts met in Harare this week to debate the potential risks of the production and trade in genetically modified organisms (GMOs), international green pressure groups insisted that the technology poses a serious threat to biodiversity.
Representatives of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Christian Aid said the technology posed a threat to small farmers and human health.
They said GMOs could easily put small farmers out of business through loss of markets and unfair competition. The delegates also said GMOs were not good for human consumption, although some people were amenable to the technology and its products.
Delegates charged that promoters of GMO technology have failed to deliver on their promises that genetically modified crops would benefit consumers and poor farmers. They also said GMO crusaders have also failed to prove that their crops would be friendly to the environment in which they were introduced.
"Contrary to the promises made by the biotech corporations, the reality of the last 10 years shows that the safety of GM crops cannot be ensured, that they are neither cheaper nor higher quality and that they are not the magical solution to solve world hunger," an FoE official said.
The GMO conference, whose theme was African Policy Dialogues on Biotechnology, was convened to build consensus and strategies for common action on the issue.
Delegates said corporations or exporters should be held strictly liable for damages caused by environmental damage. "The world urgently needs liability laws to make polluters pay for the genetic contamination they make," said John Mugabe, executive secretary for the New Partnership for Africa's Development's Science and Technology Forum.
Southern African Development Community delegates were sceptical and expressed fear of the impact of agricultural biotechnology on the environment.
"We must be constantly on guard against new forms of exploitation," Joshua Mpinga from Zambia said. "This biotech thing is just another way for these people to make themselves richer - to make us more dependent on them. And if the Europeans and Americans want to fight over who will get richer from biotechnology, then they should not use us as proxy battle grounds."
Zimbabwe and Zambia have been wary of permitting food aid that contains transgenic maize into the country, even though both countries were experiencing food shortages. Authorities in Zimbabwe have said this reluctance related to concerns about the safety of the food and the possible disappearance of major markets. Although Zimbabwe has rejected GMO maize, it has accepted its maize meal.
Minister of State for Science and Technology Olivia Muchena told the delegates that proponents of the technology had exaggerated the benefits of GMOs for economic, political and social reasons.
"Statements such as 'GMOs will stop hunger in Africa' are not only misplaced but also provocative. We know that poverty and hunger are caused by a number of economic, social and political factors," Muchena said.
"Narrowing the cause of hunger to the absence of one technology is really missing the point. Would we be wrong to think that the motives behind these reductionist statements are a way of looking for markets for their products?"
However, other delegates said Africa was supposed to be careful as it could end up "throwing out the baby with the bath water".
"It is relevant to go back to other biotechnology that is relevant to Africa such as hybrid with no environmental risk," Joseph Mzinga, an official with the Participatory Ecological Land Use Management in Tanzania, said. "In fact, we need to look at the good aspects of this technology and embrace it, the bad we must reject."
Mauritian delegate Gobin Manesh said: "It's a fantastic technology. Who wouldn't want a crop that is drought-resistant? All new technology comes with some risk. Our challenge is to contain the risk."