ZAMBIA, like any other Sub-Saharan African (SSA) country, has been grappling with the need to increase productivity for most of its crops and develop crop resistance to drought and diseases.
In the livestock sub-sector, the need for animals which can survive the worst of the conditions has been a cry of many cattle farmers who have suffered losses after their animals were wiped out because of deadly diseases like denkete.
Factors and figures point to biotechnology as part of the panacea to the current quagmire which calls for need to produce more food at a reduced cost and ensure reduced risks of losing the crops or animals through diseases and harsh climatic conditions.
The drought of 2001/2 farming season brought Zambia face-to-face with the reality of biotechnology and made it imperative to explore it willy-nilly.
The drought had resulted in food deficit which led to the World Food Programme (WFP) offering the late president Levy Mwanawasa's led government a humanitarian aid - maize donated by the American government - which was, however, genetically modified.
For the period that followed the Zambians were treated to a heated debate on whether the country should accept the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or not.
Despite the food shortages and widespread starvation, the government chose to reject 35,000 tonnes of food which included the GMO maize.
The Government applied the precautionary principle in rejecting the genetically modified maize and received mixed reactions from Zambians, some of who were ready to consume it while others vowed never to.
The move was criticised by the WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the American government who argued that it endangered lives of starving people.
The precautionary principle states that: "if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action."
As challenging as the situation was, it gave the leaders then a chance to fully explore the issue of biotechnology as a way of ensuring biosafety.
They realised that whether they liked it or not, they would have to confront the issue, anyway, as they could not wish it away.
This led to the Government developing interest in the issue where as in 2004, it ratified the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which is an international agreement that aims at ensuring the safe handling, transportation and use of living modified organisms (LMOs).
These LMOs result from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health.
It was adopted on 29 January 2000 and entered into force on September 11 2003.
Zambia's National Biosafety Authority (NBA) acting registrar Alfred Sumani says, in 2003 Zambia developed the National Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy with assistance from cooperating partners.
Dr Sumani says the policy's main objective was to guide the judicious use and regulation of modern biotechnology with minimum risks to humans, animal health and the environment.
It was aimed at supporting the development of research and industrial capacity to safely apply biotechnology techniques for the enhancement of Zambia's socio-economic and environmental wellbeing.
Further, works on the issue led to the enactment of the Biosafety Act in 2007 which resulted in the creation of the NBA two years later.
The NBA is tasked to handle all biotechnology-related issues.
The NBA is there to regulate the safe handling, use and transfer of GMO materials in the country.
Dr Sumani, however, notes that since inception in 2009, he has been the only employee for the NBA Zambia.
The authority has not handled any application in terms of regulating the safe handling, use and transfer of the GMO materials.
It is for this reason the NBA Zambia decided that it could be wise to learn from another country where the authority has advanced on the issue.
About a fortnight ago, therefore, Dr Sumani led an eight-man team of fellow scientists and two journalists to Kenya on a familiarisation visit to NBA Kenya and other scientific organisations.
Despite having come from behind, NBA Kenya has scored more successes than Zambia's.
Kenya's Biosafety Act was passed in 2009 while Zambia's was enacted two years before.
According to NBA Kenya director, technical services, Dorington Ogoyi, the authority is now fully fledged with a good number of employees.
Professor Ogoyi said in his presentation that NBA Kenya had received 29 applications for conducting research on or importing GMO materials out of which 26 were approved and three are still pending.
The researches which are underway include on drought resistant maize, bio-fortified sorghum, cassava, cotton and others.
Professor Ogoyi says the environmental release which is the final stage of the research is expected to take place in 2014 when the commercialisation of the research is supposed to be done.
A researcher at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) Douglas Miano says the GMO research on cassava was aimed at controlling the diseases and improving on the crop's nutritional value.
Dr Miano says the work would lead to an increase in the after-harvest shelf life of the cassava, with increased post value addition and in the yields.
The two main diseases targeted are the cassava mosaic disease and the cassava brown streak disease which can reduce yields to zero.
To improve on the cassava nutritional value, the scientists would increase the level of protein, iron, zinc as well as vitamins A and E through the use of GMOs.
For sorghum which is the fifth most important grain for food use, Dr Miano says it would be nutritionally enhanced for arid and semi-arid tropical areas in Africa.
Sorghum is a staple food for about 300 million people in Africa and has high energy value.
It has, however, low levels of protein, quality, iron, zinc and other important food elements which the GMO research aims at improving.
According to Dr Miano, the success of the project would greatly help in improving the dietary requirements for many Africans.
For cotton, the project involves the production of what is known as Bacillus thuringiensis or bt cotton, which is a pest resistant crop attained through GMO.
Dr Miano says the commercialisation taskforce for the release of the bt cotton has already been set up.
The bt has been extended to maize for the development of insect resistant ones particularly against stem borers.
A strait would be incorporated to drought resistant maize to improve it further.
The most important of them all for Zambia and other countries where maize is mainly grown by the small- scale farmers is another one on maize, aimed at increasing maize productivity.
Currently, Dr Miano observes, farmers in developed countries produced about 8.3 tonnes of maize per hectare while SSA small scale farmers record 1.3 tonnes per hectares.
He says researches have shown that among small- scale farmers in SSA, 17 per cent of the maize is lost to drought, another 20 per cent to infertile soils, another 10-20 per cent to insects, 10 per cent to stem boring, 15 per cent to parasitic weeds, and another 10 per cent to leaf and ear diseases.
The research, therefore, is aimed at increasing the maize yield per hectare and Dr Miano says that would help: "Improve the lives of subsistence and smallholder farmers on nutritionally deprived soils in Sub- Saharan African by developing and deploying improved varieties with nitrogen use efficiency."
Kenyan Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister, Margaret Kamar says Africa would not record meaningful economic growth which would help to drastically reduce poverty if countries do not embrace biotechnology.
Professor Kamar says African scientists, however, have the duty to help demystify the biotechnology, especially issues related to GMOs which invoke fears among people on the continent.
Therefore, as African countries like Zambia wish to tap in to the benefits of biotechnology particularly GMOs, they "must be extremely cautious on these issues", as Prof Kamar says.
For Zambia the challenge is to grow the NBA so that it could be in a position to advise the nation on what aspect of biotechnology is safe for the people and what is not, otherwise the country may end up denying itself chance to leap to national development.