Harare — Farming with GMOs is banned in Zimbabwe, not only because of potential health and environment risks, but also for economic reasons - because the European Union does not import any food containing GMOs.
But in February 2006 a well-known American advocate of biotechnology, including genetic modification, visited Harare on a lecture tour to urge the country to embrace biotechnology. Prof Tom De Gregori of the University of Houston, who came at the invitation of President Robert Mugabe, said Zimbabwe could turn around its fortunes by applying biotechnology to agriculture and health.
Delivering a lecture at the University of Zimbabwe, De Gregori said African countries should follow the examples of China and Malaysia and improve agricultural productivity through biotechnology. "Biotechnology results in increased soil protection, reduction in pests and increased yields," he said.
The comments have prompted speculation that GM plants may be introduced in Zimbabwe.
So far, there has been little national debate on this issue, although some farmers are aware of the fears associated with GMOs, including the contamination of non-GM plants.
Under the Convention on Biological Diversity, it is the responsibility of governments to inform and consult the people before allowing the introduction of GMOs. Yet, in practice, the Zimbabwean government has done little to consult farmers - at a time when such consultations are most needed. A Bill apparently seeking to promote the safe application of biotechnology is awaiting introduction before the House of Assembly.
The draft Bill seeks to establish a National Biotechnology Authority - a statutory body that will be responsible for managing the import, research, development, production and use of biotechnology in Zimbabwe.
The proposed law also seeks to ensure that the introduction of biotechnology does not have adverse effects on health, environment, economy, national security and social norms and values.
Fund to boost cotton
Under the Bill, a National Biotechnology Fund will be established to promote the marketing and production of transgenic crops as well as research into modern biotechnology. It empowers the Minister for Science and Technology Development to impose levies on producers, processors and buyers of any biotechnological product - money that will go into the Biotechnology Fund.
The move is aimed at boosting the production of mainly cash crops, notably cotton, which in turn could help beef up Zimbabwe's dwindling foreign currency reserves.
"Our rate of uptake of the upcoming biotechnology is really not encouraging as biotechnology is poised to revolutionalise the way we do business through increased food production, which will also be exported to boost foreign currency reserves," says Science and Technology Development Minister, Dr Olivia Muchena.
But, she admits, "there are also concerns about biotechnology that GMOs may not be safe to eat; these concerns need to be discussed openly".
Enter Chinese firms...
Experts also point to the potential role of Chinese firms in rolling out GM crops. Chinese companies have set up in a big way in Zimbabwe's countryside and President Mugabe, facing increasing isolation from Western governments, has adopted a 'Look East' policy aimed at facilitating investments from China and other Asian countries.
"Zimbabwe will continue turning to the East as we seek to explore growth opportunities and strengthen economic ties," the President said recently.
Zimbabwe and China have also sealed several economic deals that would see the Chinese funding the production of flue-cured tobacco and cotton among other products. As a result cotton industry sources are predicting a huge increase in production this year - around 750,000 kg compared to just 200,000 kg last year.
But there are fears that these Chinese-run farms may not be subject to strict biosafety controls. For example, there are reports that following the entry of Chinese and other foreign firms into farming, some farmers have held illegal field trials with Bt cotton without an operational resistance management plan.
And Western multinationals too
The Chinese aren't the only ones waiting in the wings. In 1998, Monsanto, the world's largest agribiotech company, planted Bt cotton seeds without official permission. But the Ministry of Land discovered it and ordered the crop to be burnt before it could flower.
Syngenta, a major Swiss biotechnology multinational, will also watch the outcome of the debate on the biotechnology Bill. Syngenta has a significant financial stake in Seed Co, Zimbabwe's largest seed producer, whose spokeswoman Marjorie Mutemererwa says she believes transgenic crops would enrich farmers.
"I do not see anything wrong with controlling the seed market because we strive to come up with the best product. In fact farmers will benefit and ensure food self-sufficiency for Zimbabwe. We must grow seeds that we are sure of," Mutemererwa says.
Over the past five years, Zimbabwe has had to cope with a string of poor harvests of maize, forcing it to import the grain from South Africa, Argentina and Brazil among other countries.
But the promise of achieving food self-sufficiency needs to be weighed against the possible negative effects using GMOs.
Legalising GM crops, for instance, could compromise Zimbabwe's exports to the European Union: the country enjoys a preferential arrangement by which it can export up to 9,100 tons of GM-free beef to the EU every year. For Zimbabwe, which has been facing a severe shortage of foreign currency, this export is vital.
No debate but many views
Although there has been no public debate as yet, there is a wide range of views among key Zimbabweans involved in agriculture policy.
Lands, Land Reform and Resettlement Minister Didymus Mutasa says Zimbabwe is suspicious of GMOs, mainly for health reasons.
"We will not import GMO food. We have not changed policy and will not in the near future. Our policy not to import unmilled maize [because GM maize may be mixed in and could be planted] is steadfast, and we continue to maintain it. It has not been reviewed and the Cabinet has not changed its position," says Mutasa.
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union president Davison Mugabe said farmers would support anything as long as it enhanced productivity. "We want our scientists to come clear on GMOs, whether they are harmful or not, and advise us accordingly. We do not want a biased approach," he says.
Davison Mugabe says he believes transgenic seeds are a major problem until proven otherwise, and adds that many others are of the same view.
Out in the country, farmers too have been weighing the pros and cons of GMO crops. Town Chingarande, whose farm is located 500 km west of Harare, sees major advantages in planting GM crops, making him a rare voice on a continent where the technology has struggled to find favour.
"They help to increase your yields and reduce your input costs. If you have a crop that is resistant to being eaten by pests you don't have to spend money on spraying with insecticide," he says.
The main concern appears to be over environmental contamination. Dr Eddie Mwenje of the National University of Science and Technology was recently quoted in the press saying: "We have started doing our analysis and results so far show a higher possibility of genes being transferred to the natural environment".
'Caution needed' - Joseph Made
Influential agriculture Minister Dr Joseph Made says there is need to exercise caution in introducing GMOs - the wholesale introduction of GMO foods, he says, might cause irreparable damage to crops and soil fertility.
"If we just introduce GMOs without first carrying out extensive research we might end up regretting it. As you know there is no precision in science. Mistakes might happen, so we need to introduce them gradually and after doing serious research and this is where Africa has been lacking," he says.
"The researchers should include health personnel, who would come in to look into things like allergies and other related issues. Consumers also determine how much we should produce - hence the need to be cautious when tampering with nature."
"My concern is on the production side - that anything we do with GMOs should not destroy our biodiversity," Made says.
There is little doubt that Zimbabwe and other southern African countries are being groomed by industry as potential candidates for GM crops. But there is uncertainty over what will follow if these crops are introduced - or if multinational corporations wrest control of the seed market.