EXTRACT: ''The benefits of biotechnology will not be felt evenly. Some will benefit, others will not. Or perhaps more accurately, in Southern Africa, some will benefit, most will not.'' - Noah Zerbe, author of ''Biotechnology and Rural Development: Implications for Southern Africa Agriculture''
Zimbabwe: Agric Biotechnology - Mixed Blessing
The Herald (Harare), 15 October 2007
While Zimbabwean scientists are upbeat about the need to use biotechnology to improve agricultural productivity, agronomists and environmentalists argue that emerging technologies could have serious implications on the operations of smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole.
Agronomists and environmentalists who attended a three-day workshop on the implications of Economic Partnership Agreements and the need for the protection of farmers'' rights which was held last week in Harare said modern biotechnology is very expensive in terms of access, affordability and suitability for smallholder farmers in developing countries.
''Developing countries do not have the resources to conduct research in modern biotechnology and the seed, the technology and other input requirements cannot be afforded by smallholder farmers,'' said Mr Andrew Mushita, the director of the Community Technology Development Trust.
Prominent Zimbabwe agronomist Mr Roger Mpande said although Zimbabwean scientists were excited about biotechnology and its potential in the agriculture sector there is need to conduct research on the implications of modern biotechnology on the livelihoods of smallholder farmers who constitute more than 80 percent of the population in most developing countries.
''Zimbabwean scientists are so excited about modern biotechnology but they haven''t told us about the possible impact of growing genetically modified (GM) crops on farmers,'' he said.
''Biotechnology research on GM crops is very expensive and smallholder farmers cannot afford to buy GM seed. Scientists want to promote the growing of GM crops at the expense of local and indigenous varieties which are easily accessible, cheap and suitable for local soils and climate.''
Mr Mushita, an expert on agrobiodiversity and environmental issues told participants that even though modern biotechnology offered some opportunities it has some demerits which affect the interests of and livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
Modern biotechnology, he said, was largely in the hands of multinational corporations that enjoyed exclusive rights over the technologies as they have the resources and capacity to develop new GM seed varieties.
He said unlike local seed varieties such as ''Mutode'' (maize seed), indigenous small grains, beans and other vegetables that could be saved as on-farm seed over years, new GM seed hybrids could only be used once.
''Farmers will depend heavily on seed from these multinationals leading to loss of biodiversity. The hybrid seed cannot germinate again once you harvest it whereas local seed types can grow,'' Mr Mushita said.
He told smallholder farmers, policy makers; agronomist and other experts that smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe and the entire African continent were unlikely to reap the benefits attributed to advances in agricultural biotechnology.
Instead, Mr Mushita argued that the advances in and adoption of new agro biotechnologies were likely to worsen rather than mitigate existing inequalities, undermine rather than protect African biodiversity, and facilitate dependence rather than development.
According to Mr Mushita some of the disadvantages of modern agro-biotechnologies include:
*Technologies and GM seed types owned and controlled by multinationals
*Technologies and GM seed crops protected by Intellectual Property Rights
*GMOs contaminate biodiversity
*Seeds are converted from being self-propagating to laboratory products
*Plant Breeders and patent holders gain monopoly rights over seeds
*Farmers become dependent on biotechnology industry over seeds
Agronomists and environmentalists who attended the workshop which was organised by CTDT said it is better for local scientists to embrace biotechnology in other fields such as medicine, veterinary, chemical and other fields which have limited adverse effects on the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
Scientists who attended a workshop organised by the National Biotechnology Authority two weeks ago argued that biotechnology could be used to find solutions to some of Zimbabwe''s pressing challenges.
Other scientists also unanimously agreed that Zimbabwe should fully embrace biotechnology and tread the path that India, China, Cuba, Brazil and South Africa have taken.
Given the importance of agriculture in Zimbabwe and the entire African continent biotechnology has been greeted with a mix of hope and suspicion making it a hot bed of fierce debate.
The sharp differences are reflected both in public and academic spheres in their approach on biotechnology and in legislative frameworks that deal with its introduction and regulation.
''In the future, bananas engineered to include malarial provolactics could prove to have great health benefits for the region.
''Bt cotton could reduce pesticide use, freeing much-needed foreign exchange and reducing the need for farmers to handle dangerous chemicals, and drought tolerant crops could reduce losses associated with bad weather,'' Mr Abisai Mafa, acting chief executive of the National Biotechnology Authority remarked in 2001.
''At the same time, there are many unknowns, which will take time to resolve. DDT, for example, was used for years before its cumulative effects were realised. We should therefore not move recklessly towards the adoption of GM crops.''
Supporters of the expansion of production of GM crops and related products argue that emerging technologies can modernise agricultural production in the developing world.
Increasing yields, they argue, will end hunger and malnutrition, and biotechnology will make agriculture more sustainable by reducing chemical inputs.
Mr Mpande said a number of factors limit the applicability of these new and emerging technologies to the African context.
He said GM crops have failed to be adopted in Zimbabwe and a few other African countries.
''The Bt Cotton project in Zimbabwe was a failure. Farmers were not keen to adopt the new seed technology, in Malawi and Tanzania there are similar reports,'' he said.
Critics of biotechnology say the limitations are, in large part, a function of Africa''s position within the global political economy.
They say current biotechnology research is not generally informed by local conditions in Zimbabwe and across the entire African continent.
In many ways this reflects the classic problem of development and ''appropriate technology.''
Agronomists and environmentalists called for the promotion of appropriate technology that is sensitive to the local conditions in the developing world. They said appropriate technology would be small-scale, labour-intensive, more subject to local mastery, repair and control and would meet particular cultural and ecological demands of the communities where it would be applied.
Such technology, Mpande and other agronomists and environmentalists believed, would be more likely to result in improved smallholder farm out and development.
In a paper titled, ''Biotechnology and Rural Development: Implications for Southern Africa Agriculture,'' Noah Zerbe, a political scientist said the current generation of GM crops under commercial production reflects the problem of inappropriate technology.
''They were designed for North American (and to a lesser extent European) farmers, not African smallholders, and focused on crops not usually grown by and adopt traits of secondary importance to most smallholder African farmers.
''Soyabeans, for example, one of the dominant commercial biotech crops, are almost exclusively cultivated by large-scale commercial farmers. The GM maize currently available is yellow maize, grown primarily as animal feed and considered unpalatable by many Africans.
''Similarly, the GM canola/rape currently on market is designed for high oil output, as the crop is grown for oil production in the West,'' he said.
African farmers, he said, however grow rape as a household vegetable for domestic consumption.
''While some research is now being directed into other crops of importance to smallholder farmers--crops such as cassava and sorghum--the vast majority of research remains confined to crops cultivated by commercial farmers in Europe and North America,'' Zerbe argued.
Opponents of biotechnology say because farmers in developing countries could produce and save their own seed from season to season, corporations argued that there was little reason for them to fund research into open pollinated varieties (OPV) seed and instead focused on hybrid crops such as maize.
Zimbabwean agronomists said the selection of hybrid crops for research and the deliberate exclusion of OPVs from research was not based on the potential of such crops nor the needs of farmers but instead on the potential profits that multinational seed companies could reap.
As a result, they said, there was limited funding into research on OPV seed which are important smallholder farmers who grow crops such as groundnut, sorghum and millet which are drought tolerant and can adapt to semi-arid regions of the country.
Studies by agronomist show that across Southern Africa, informal seed networks remain the primary source of seed for the vast majority of smallholder farmers.
In Sadc region, the studies show, less than 10 percent of seed sown by smallholder farmers is obtained from the formal sector.
Farmers rely extensively on farm saved seed (60-70 percent of total seed planted) and social networks (30-40 percent). Informal, community-based seed networks -- saving seed on-farm, or acquiring seed from relatives, neighbours, or other community sources through barter or social obligation, they say, represent a key component of agricultural production in Southern Africa.
In the end, there is need for Zimbabwean scientists, agronomists and environmentalists to weigh what is best for the country in terms of biotechnology application, adoption and the implications of its use on smallholder farmers'' livelihood.
Zerbe rightly concludes: ''Agricultural biotechnology thus represents, at best, a mixed blessing for Southern Africa, holding both promise and peril for African smallholders in particular. The application of molecular techniques to agriculture could lead to increased yields and crops expressing many desirable traits.
''At the same time, however, the social, economic and environmental consequences of the new technology must be considered. The benefits of biotechnology will not be felt evenly. Some will benefit, others will not. Or perhaps more accurately, in Southern Africa, some will benefit, most will not.''
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