Friday, August 03, 2007

Zimbabwe and Biotechnology

Author: James Wachai

Two years ago, drought and famine ravaged Zimbabwe. Many Zimbabweans cheated death by a whisker as their leaders haggled over whether to accept food aid, especially maize (corn) from the World Food Programme (WFP).

The borne of contention was whether to allow WFP deliver genetically modified food to hungry Zimbabweans. In the words of the then Minister for Agriculture and Rural Resettlement, Joseph Mande, Zimbabweans would not accept any food from WFP as it was ""contaminated"" with genetically modified organisms. ""You cannot use the Zimbabwe population as guinea pigs,"" Mande was quoted as saying. President Mugabe, himself, declared that his country would not be receptive of any genetically modified food. This year again, Zimbabwe is facing another worst food crisis. After another long spell of drought, Zimbabweans face, perhaps, the worst food shortage.

After months of self-denial, the Mugabe government is finally pleading with WFP for food. It is, however, interesting that no one is talking about genetically modified food. What more can one say? Evidently, the Mugabe government must have learnt that the debate about GMOs, especially by Africans is a luxury. It is important to point out that all this chest-thumping rhetoric about genetically modified food has one thing in common.

The rhetoric is devoid of hard scientific evidence to support the case against GMOs. President Mugabe and Minister Mande's allegations about GMOs would only be described as wild and misplaced. At the height of hunger in 2002, Mugabe allowed WFP to bring in genetically modified maize as long as it was milled. For a president who cares about the 'health' of his people, this somersaulting was unexpected. But it confirms the fact that the hubris about the dangers posed by genetically modified food is, again, only informed by ignorance and disinformation.

If milled genetically modified maize would be safe to Zimbabweans, why not the unmilled one? Critics of GMOs need to realize that they cannot eat their cake and have it. Those who allude at the US's hypocrisy in introducing GMOs in Africa are, to say the least, are misinformed. Genetically modified food, has been certified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as safe to eat and plant. FDA is highly respected regulatory agency that would not compromise the health of consumers of genetically modified food. This is why if you go to Wal-mart, Kenmart or any other supermarket in the US, you will not encounter corn labeled 'genetically modified.'

What Africa needs is a technology that will guarantee its farming community sustained food production. Genetic engineering offers this hope.

About the author: James Wachai is a communication specialist who uses his expertise to increase public understanding of science and technology, specifically biotechnology. Read more from James at


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