Zimbabwe has launched a forum to encourage public discussion on the use of biotechnology to boost the country's food security.
The Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), launched earlier in December, aims to explore ways to boost Zimbabwe's crop yields without using genetically modified (GM) crops, which are banned in the country.
Speaking at the launch of the forum, Zimbabwe's minister of higher and tertiary education, science and technology development, Olivia Muchena, called for greater public awareness about the role of biotechnology in agriculture, to dispel the misconception that biotechnology necessarily means GM technology.
Biotechnology refers to scientific techniques that use biological systems, living organisms or their derivatives to make or modify products or processes - for example, to develop seeds that germinate faster or produce bigger yields.
Genetic modification, which is a particular biotech approach, alters the genetic structure of living organisms to confer characteristics such as better resistance to disease and tolerance of heat or water stress.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the most divisive among the various biotechnologies, and Zimbabwe is one of several African countries that have banned the cultivation or sale of GM crops.
The private sector - including some companies that use GM tools - is backing the new forum in the hope it may eventually influence government policy on GMOs, even though GM is not within its remit.
"Forums like this are important as a country considers the best way to bring innovation to their agricultural industry and how to improve the food security of its people," said Barbra Sehlule Muzata, a spokesperson for DuPont Pioneer.
The company produces hybrid seeds used by Zimbabwean farmers, which it says help improve crop productivity and quality. It also offers GM products.
"Similar forums have played a key role in other countries around the world, and we hope Zimbabwe will have a positive experience as well. We look forward to working together to help address the challenges Zimbabwe farmers face," Muzata said.
Ian Robertson, chief executive officer of Agri-Biotech (Pvt) Ltd, said the OFAB should provide science-based advice and knowledge to the media, schools and politicians.
"There is a need to vet rumours and gossip to sieve out the truth based on scientific reports of trials with genuine controls to show differences between non-GM and GM," he said.
According to Robertson, many research papers in peer-reviewed publications show that GM crops require less use of pesticides and herbicides, which protects workers' health and the environment.
Agri-Biotech also promotes plant tissue culture, a breeding technique which it calls "barefoot biotech" because it can be done in a simple laboratory and multiplies crop yields.
"Most good breeding gets you a few percentage (points) of increase - nothing like threefold. Fifty African countries could do with this technology; we could be a hub for providing it with training or exchanges," Robertson said.
Nongovernmental organisations have delivered Agri-Biotech's sweet potato into every province in Zimbabwe under a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation contract, he noted.
The OFAB, the first biotech forum to be hosted in southern Africa, follows a collaboration agreement signed in October by the regional biotechnology umbrella body AfricaBio and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation with Zimbabwe's National Biotechnology Authority (NBA).
The NBA supports the research, development and application of biotechnology in various sectors, including agriculture and the environment. It is also responsible for GMO surveillance and testing.
"This is an important development for Zimbabwe, which should have long embraced biotechnology," NBA Board Chairman Sam Muchena said at the signing. "Due to challenges in the country, we are not at the same level as South Africa, for example, and we feel this programme will help us pave the way for what should have happened 10 years ago."
Ida Sithole-Niang, professor of molecular biology and virology at the University of Zimbabwe, urged the government to use the forum to take the biotechnology agenda to a new level in the light of widespread food shortages and low crop yields.
In 2013, Zimbabwe was expected to import more than 1 million tonnes of grain owing to a poor harvest blamed on bad weather, inadequate preparation for the farming season and the after-effects of the 2000 land reform programme.
The country is already using tissue culture and molecular marker techniques in agriculture, and has developed a maize variety, Sirdamaize 113, that thrives in the low rainfall conditions found in Zimbabwe's semi-arid regions.
Acknowledging that some applications of biotechnology are controversial, AfricaBio's chief executive officer, Nompumelelo Obokoh, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that by establishing a biotechnology platform, Zimbabwe could gain access to the benefits of biotechnology at a time when Africa is looking to science for solutions to food insecurity.
Agriculture minister Joseph Made recently told Zimbabwe's National Assembly that the government policy banning GMOs had not changed. He said introducing them would be detrimental to the local seed industry, and that the country has sufficient capacity to produce high-yielding varieties of grain suitable for its changing climate.
At the heart of the GMO debate are claims by proponents that GM crops are a tool to boost food security and end world hunger through hardy, better-yielding crops, especially in the face of climate change.
Critics of GM say these crops have negative implications for ecosystems, human and animal biodiversity, and that conventional agricultural breeding methods have not failed to an extent that would warrant the use of GM.
Jeffery Smith, an advocate of GM-free agriculture in the United States and executive director of the Institute for Responsible Technology, said hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by biotech companies trying to convince the world that GM crops are safe, and are needed to feed the planet's population.
"Based on considerable scientific evidence, we now know that the current generation of genetically modified organisms is not safe and therefore GMOs should not be used in the food supply," Smith said via e-mail.
But Mark Lynas, a former anti-GM activist turned GM supporter, said African farmers should be allowed to develop out of poverty by using modern farming methods, including improved and GM crop varieties, if they want to.
He argued that opponents of GM crops "want to deny African smallholders choice, and only allow them to use ideologically approved 'traditional' varieties, which are lower-yielding and leave families hungry".
Busani Bafana is a freelance contributor for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, based in Zimbabwe and covering climate change issues.