Food biotech answer to Zim's food, nutrition woes

HARARE - When single mother Pamela Chiromo was allocated a small plot to grow maize in the fertile Beatrice area last year, she thought she had finally found the solution to the nagging problem of fending for her young family.

She would roam around the plot like a proud successful farmer, beholding the charm of the green, lush crop until one day when she noticed that all was not well.

Her field had been invaded by the merciless fall armyworm which was eating into the tender cobs.

On advice from fellow farmers, she tried to apply chemicals but the worms could only grow in number.

Nothing could have prepared her for the sudden invasion of the fall armyworm that caused irreversible damage on her maize crop.

“I first noticed it in January,” she said.

“I tried to control it through spraying with different pesticides, but to no avail. I had hoped to harvest about eight tons per hectare of maize, but I am not sure if I can manage three tons now,” said the distraught farmer as she begins to count the losses of her investment.

Since 2006, the fall armyworm has caused significant damage on over 280 000 hectares of maize in Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and can cause up to 70 percent crop loss, or total loss in some cases if unmanaged, according to the Food And Agriculture organisation (FAO).

FAO has warned that this year alone, the level of damage witnessed in the fields is likely to affect maize harvests across the region, which is expected to create more than 200 million food-insecure people who depend on maize for food.

It has so far been impossible to eradicate the pest, which is known to migrate quickly and breed quite fast, with an entire life cycle between 35 and 61 days.

African countries are facing a maize shortage and losses running into billions of dollars due to the devastation caused by the fall armyworm, which is presumed to have originated from the Americas.

A new report released by the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International (Cabi) shows that improper management of the armyworm could cost 10 of the continent’s major maize producing economies between $2,2 billion and $5,5 billion per year in lost maize harvests.

According to the report, the armyworm is now a permanent challenge to the continent that largely depends on maize, spreading to 28 African countries just a year after it was first reported.

But will the statistics appear to paint a gloomy future in terms of food and nutrition security in sub-Saharan Africa, scientists committed to food biotechnologies believe they have the solution to the country and the region’s mounting feeding woes, already compounded by vagaries of climate change induced droughts and highly degraded soils.

Yet, while other African countries have awaken from their slumbers to embrace modern food biotechnologies, Zimbabwe continues to flow against the time as it maintains an unflinching ‘no to genetically modified organisms’ policy.

Genetically modified agricultural products have been identified as the single most relevant solution to the world’s hunger and nutrition problems.

Biotechnology encompasses the basic and applied sciences of living systems and their engineering aspects required to exploit their bioprocesses to bring products to the market place.

Prominent social science researcher and lecturer at the Namibia University of Sciences and Technology, Admire Mare, says by most accounts, low agricultural production is one of the prevailing factors behind the high incidence of poverty and food insecurity across the world.

“However, concerned observers note that most poor and food insecure people in the world live in developing countries and rural areas. They say that one of the most important challenges facing the developing world nowadays is how to meet the current food needs of a growing population without undermining the ability of future generations to survive.

“Therefore, issues relating to food security and sustainable agriculture have been on the front burner in the global discourse at all levels of government, as innovative plans are always made for a changing global climate and the increasing global population,” he said.

Some experts, nonetheless, insist that crop production through biotechnology applications should be encouraged to meet the increasing dietary needs of the world.
One of the experts Christopher Chetsanga called on government to embrace the use of agricultural biotechnology to transform agriculture and enhance the country’s food security.

The GMO expert told the Daily News on Sunday that application of modern biotechnology in agriculture was central to efforts to attain food security in the country.

He said that Zimbabwe, with an ever growing population of over 14 million, needed more food to feed its citizens, while the potential of biotechnology, as a tool for facilitating the achievement of food security, had yet to be fully exploited.

“I encourage the government to adopt GMOs. They are the answer to the world’s hunger crisis and they are the future of food production everywhere,” said the leading biochemist, considered as one of the sharpest biotechnology minds around the world but whose efforts have yet to be rewarded due to policy frustrations.

“I have been told several times that the ban on GMOs is on health ground, but I have worked in the United States before in this field and I can safely tell you that they US people have been eating GMOs for over 20 years and they are no such health fears. Instead, there has been significant interest in making GMO plants more nutritious, to help combat nutritional deficiencies and to help ensure that people are healthy. This means that GMOs manipulated in this way could be significantly healthier than their non-GMO counterparts,” said Chetsanga.

The UN Food recently stated that global production of food ought to double by 2050 in order to meet the demands of a growing global population.

According to the UN Food, sub-Saharan Africa is the one of the regions in the world where the percentage of the population suffering from malnutrition, hunger and starvation is still unacceptably high.

Senior lecturer in the department of biotechnology at the University of Zimbabwe, Walter Sanyika, says in addition to aiding plant growth and creasing yields through manipulating plants’ genetic variation, biotechnology has also been proved to be the most potent pest control measure.

This comes amid reports that Zimbabwe lost up to 30 percent of its crops to the fall armyworm, which can easily be controlled by the Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT) method.

BT is a gram-positive, soil-dwelling bacterium, commonly used as a biological pesticide.

“When using this technology, you don’t need to apply any pesticides. Crops would be genetically engineered to repel pests and ensure increased yields and better crop quality,” he said.

He added that biotechnology, which was also genetic modification, would address the challenges relating to plant pest and diseases as well as the vagaries of weather, among other challenges facing crop growing.

He said the new generation of biotech crops, developed via the increasing use of stacked traits, did not only address the farmers’ concerns, but also addressed consumers’ preference and nutritional needs.

All in all, the general consensus of opinion is that Zimbabwe should make pragmatic efforts to develop its biotechnology sector.

But while the whole world makes giant strides in science resulting in accelerated development, including the application of biotechnology in agriculture, to improve overall livelihood, productivity and food security, Zimbabwe’s stringent anti-biotechnology in agriculture policy remains the major drawback.

This is despite the fact that Zimbabwe was among the first countries in Africa to ratify the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity 2000; an international agreement which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health.

In fact, Zimbabwe took the lead in training other African countries on biotechnology and biosafety but has now been overtaken by most of them.

Agriculture minister, Perrance Shiri, simply said: The position of the government is very clear, we do not accept GMOs.”

But this position is not finding any favour from biotechnology enthusiasts who cannot wait for its actualisation.

“Let’s maximise and take care of the abundant knowledge we have. The policy position is an emotional and not a rational one. We might not be able to employ biotechnology in our farms but we live with them every day. We eat genetically modified foods imported into the country and we used clothes from GMO cotton. If the country changes that policy, we could realise great economic value from it and be able to feed the hungry population,” said Sanyika.

He added that concerns over the safety of GMOs was mainly advanced by chemical manufacturing country who fear they could go bust if biotechnology takes over pest control and the application of fetilisers in the fields.

National Biotechnology Authority (NBA) chief executive officer Jonathan Mufandaedza echoed the same sentiments, saying the country was ready for successful application of agricultural biotechnology if there was a policy change.

“It’s an issue we would want to see taking a new twist as an authority whose mandate is to ensure biosafety. The good thing is that we have everything in place; the technology is there, the knowledge is there, manpower is there and the framework guiding biotechnology use is the country. The only thing which is left is a policy shift,” Mufandaedza said.

“The promises of biotech crops can only be unlocked if farmers are able to buy and plant these crops, following a scientific approach to regulatory reviews and approvals,” he added.

Advances are being realised in many African countries.

In 2016, South Africa and Sudan increased the planting of biotech maize, soybean and cotton to 2 66 million hectares from 2 29 million hectares in 2015.

In 2015, the Botswana Parliament approved the national biosafety policy which would guide and ensure the safe development and application of tools of modern biotechnology in particular Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs),

Zambia and Malawi have also commissioned studies to see how they can proceed with GMOs.

With millions of people mostly children facing food insecurity due to famine, drought and other climate related causes in the African continent, over 60 percent of malnourished people live in sub-Saharan Africa.

Accordingly, biotechnology is one of the ways to improve agricultural production.

There are instances that tissue culture, one of the most important biotechnologies, has improved food and nutrition security in many areas.

Modern food biotechnology increases the speed and precision with which scientists can improve food traits and production practices.

For centuries prior to the development of this technology, farmers have spent generations crossbreeding plants or animals to obtain the specific beneficial traits they were looking for and avoid the traits they did not want.

The process not only took a lot of time and effort, but the final outcome was far from guaranteed.

Today, food biotechnology utilises the knowledge of plant science and genetics to further this tradition.

Through the use of modern biotechnology, scientists can move genes for valuable traits from one plant to another.

This process results in tangible environmental and economic benefits that are passed on to the farmer and the consumer1.

Over the years attitudes towards biotech foods have gradually become more favorable as people realize the environmental, economic, and nutritional benefits they can impart, and recognise the safety of these food products with respect to human health and the environment. Additionally, despite occasional reluctance from certain environmental groups, the rising food and bio-fuel demands world-wide are quickening the broader acceptance of biotech foods in the marketplace.

As more and more products made through biotechnology are approved for sale, any stigmas related to biotechnology continue to lessen, as awareness increases and consumers reap the rewards of these enhanced crops and foods.


 

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