By Sifelani Tsiko
Zimbabwe must seriously consider the adoption of Bt cotton by farmers to revamp production and improve rural livelihoods, president of the Chiefs’ Council, Chief Fortune Charumbia, has said.
Speaking at a workshop addressing cultural and religious issues surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Harare recently, Chief Charumbira said there has been a lot of misinformation about the potential risks and benefits of GM crops and products.
“Dr (Joseph) Made is on record for saying as a country we will never allow GMOs. As chiefs we are prepared for the truth and nothing else. We want knowledge and we want Zimbabwean scientists to give us the facts and help our people to understand,” he said.
“Prof Christopher Chetsanga and Prof Ida Sithole-Niang have spoken out clearly on the subject and I think Zimbabwe should move to adopt Bt Cotton given the potential benefits that have been highlighted here.
“Let’s go case by case and start with cotton. Plunging into GM food crops may be too risky and controversial. Zimbabwe should at least move to do trials for Bt cotton.”
Assuring Agricultural and Food Safety of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in Southern Africa (GMASSURE) in partnership with the University of Zimbabwe, organised a two-day workshop recently to create public awareness around the use of modern biotechnologies to demonstrate their relevance for increasing agricultural productivity and ensuring food safety in Southern Africa.
Chief Zama Ngungumbane Mkwananzi from Mberengwa in the Midlands province said there was a lot of mistrust and suspicion between scientists, the Government and the general public when it came to the controversial issue of GMOs.
He said lack of information had stalled a progressive debate about the potential benefits of GM crops to the country.
“When you talk of GMOs in rural areas very few people understand what they are. There is a lot of scientific jargon and we need you as scientists to simplify the terms for the people to see the benefits you are showing us,” Chief Ngungumbane said.
“As a country we need to be proactive and not reactive when it comes to the adoption of new technologies that might have a potential to improve yields and earnings for farmers. We need dialogue on GMOs so that traditional leaders and the people see the potential benefits of these new technologies to address food insecurity.”
He said Zimbabwean scientists should come out and demonstrate the potential benefits of GM technologies so that the government and the general public could make informed decision and choices.
“From the presentation from Prof Sithole-Niang and Prof Chetsanga its clear that our farmers can benefit from Bt cotton through improved yields and earnings using modern biotechnologies,” Chief Ngungumbane said.
“We can start by adopting Bt cotton, but we need to first raise awareness and engage relevant government departments to allay fears, mistrust and suspicion over GMOs. Very few people are aware that by 2040 the world will have to grapple to feed some 9 billion people. By this time, land and water will be scarce and we will need modern technologies to feed the swelling populations.”
Religious leaders also attended the workshop and bemoaned the general ignorance surrounding issues related to GMOs.
Reverend Samuel Sifelani of the Anglican Church said there was a need for dialogue between scientists and Christians to address concerns surrounding GMO issues.
“We need to have candid discussions about GMOs,” he said. “We should not look down upon one another. As Christians, we support any new technology that will improve food and nutrition security for the poor provided its safe.
“The level of ignorance around GMOs is quite shocking in the country and we need to raise awareness and help people make informed choices. If Bt cotton has potential benefits, let us tell it and demonstrate it to the people.”
He said given the information he had gathered from Zimbabwean scientists at the workshop, it was possible to use Bt cotton to revive the clothing and textile industry which was once vibrant on Gweru, Kadoma, Chegutu and Norton.
A farmers union official also weighed in and supported the growing of Bt cotton.
“Our farmers are experiencing huge losses due to the bollworm problem. Despite the fears that we have for biotechnology, I think Zimbabwe as a country needs to seriously consider Bt cotton to help farmers to reduce crop yield losses and enhance their earnings,” he said.
“We are lagging behind in terms of adopting agricultural technologies which could help cut input costs for our cotton farmers who are struggling with high pesticide costs and crop yield losses. This can be a useful technology to boost cotton production and help us meet some of the objectives outlined under the ZimAsset economic blue print.”
Biotechnology experts say genetically modified cotton is developed using bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which naturally produces a chemical harmful only to a small fraction of insects such as the bollworm.
The Bt toxin is inserted into cotton, causing cotton called Bt cotton, to produce this natural insecticide in its tissues.
Experts say Bt cotton can help reduce heavy reliance on pesticides and reduce input costs for farmers.
Proponents of biotechnology argue that cotton farmers in Zimbabwe, Malawi and most other African countries, can effectively reduce input costs and control damage from bollworms and other insects that frequently damage cotton by adopting Bt cotton.
They say cotton farmers in Africa suffer huge losses due to pest problems.
The most destructive of pests is the African bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), which biotech experts say in severe cases can cause a 100 percent loss while in unprotected fields pest damage can be as high as 90 percent.
Using Bt cotton developed using bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which naturally produces a chemical harmful only to a small fraction of insects such as the bollworm, they say reduction in pest infestations can increase yields and improve the livelihoods of cotton growers.
Cotton production in Zimbabwe has declined sharply over the years due to uncompetitive prices, high input costs for farmers and other constraints.
– Zimpapers Syndication Services.