Hungry Africa strives to harmonize GMO policies

By Singy Hanyona

LUSAKA, Zambia, October 10, 2003 (ENS): Zambian Agriculture and Cooperatives Minister Mundia Sikatana warns that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) present serious environmental and agricultural problems that African leaders would find difficult, if not impossible, to resolve.

"We need to adequately and comprehensively address the issue of GMOs. We would not like to create problems that we are unable to solve," the minister said September 20 at the opening of a two week long regional Seed Technology Course given by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Zambia’s capital city Lusaka.

The minister’s comments come shortly before the deadline given to the 14 SADC member countries to prepare a common regional position and harmonize their legislation on biotechnology.

The SADC Secretariat has set 2004 as the deadline for a regional position on biotechnology. This position is being developed, taking into account the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the African Union Biosafety Model Legislation, which is now in force.

SADC member countries include Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The Zambian minister said that with the ongoing transformation of the seed industry in the region, seed experts must be mindful of the new concepts such as plant breeders’ rights, on-farm seed multiplication, and licensed seed quality control.

"These control systems never existed but have now emerged in the seed industry. Among these, we must not forget the issue of GMOs," Sikatana said.

He said that Zambia, having rejected transgenic food aid shipments from the United States last year, is one country in the region that is being cautious about the use of GMOs, so the country has adopted a biosafety and biotechnology policy.

"We are now developing legislation to implement the policy. Our target is to have an Act before the end of the year," Sikatana said.

He noted that the differences in seed legislation among the 14 countries in the SADC regional group have resulted in many difficulties in cross-border seed trade.

The minister commended the efforts of the nonprofit SADC Seed Security Network (SSSN), to harmonize seed legislation in the region. He said regional seed experts have the task of ensuring that the farming community is supplied with appropriate seeds, as seed is the carrier of agricultural technology.

Sikatana said that other inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides are merely meant to exploit the potential that is contained in seed. "We can never have agricultural production without seed. It is a prerequisite input," he told seed course participants.

For the past several years, the SADC region has been faced with a serious food crisis, with an estimated 6.5 million vulnerable people in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe now at risk of starvation.

Sikatana challenged agricultural experts to find ways of resolving the many food problems facing the Sub-Saharan African countries. "We have challenges ranging from changing weather patterns to increasing populations," he said.

In meeting these challenges, the minister said, it is important that seed experts strive to hard to ensure solutions to increased food production in the region are found. He expressed concern that despite its vast agricultural lands, the region still continues to suffer food shortages.

Food shortages in 2003 have been caused by prolonged dry spells in parts of southern and western Zambia, which have reduced grain yields. In some areas, this is the second, or even third, successive year of poor harvests. Despite this, the overall harvest is 49 percent up on last year, according to an analysis by the UN World Food Program.

Though agriculture contributes 34 percent of the region’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the industry has not greatly contributed to the absorption of the labor force and to the provision of raw materials to industries. "We can do better than this," said Sikatana.

The GMO issue is now under the direction of the SADC Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and Biosafety authorized in October 2002 by the SADC Council of Ministers at a meeting held in Luanda, Angola. The committee is tasked with developing guidelines to safeguard SADC member countries against potential risks in the areas of food safety, contamination of genetic resources, and consumer concerns.

A report of the inaugural meeting of the SADC Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and Biosafety held in Gaborone, Botswana in April indicates that currently, SADC as region has no harmonized position on biotechnology and the handling of genetically modified organisms.

“As a result, there are operational problems in handling issues of GMOs including the movement of food items. These problems arise mainly because of environmental concerns associated with the movement of GMOs,” the committee stated in its report.

While acknowledging the potential of genetic engineering to revolutionize agriculture, health and the environment, SADC Executive Secretary Dr. Prega Ramsamy said SADC is "convinced that, like any other technology, biotechnology offers both potential and risks for the world community."

Zambia, which has neither signed nor ratified the Cartagena Protocol, rejected a donation of transgenic food aid from the United States in August 2002 after a protracted national debate over safety of the food, citing uncertainties over its impact on human health and the environment.

At that point, SADC issued ad hoc guidelines to prevent potential risks from poor handling of genetically modified maize, especially the likely contamination of the existing germplasm. The guidelines include the need for campaigns to make farmers aware that GMO maize should not be planted and that the genetically modified maize should be milled before distribution so it cannot be used as seed.


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