Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Biotechnology: Zimbabwe Must Learn From China

Author: James Wachai

Ever heard of the saying, you cannot bite the hand that feeds you?.Shunned by the West for oppressing his people, Zimbabwean President, Robert Mugabe, has turned to China for comradeship. Two weeks ago, Mugabe and his lieutenants were in China - on a begging mission. His country's economy now in a shambles, Mugabe saw it fit to plead with China to rescue his fast sinking ship. Expectedly, China - a fast growing economy, has pledged to come to Mugabe's aid. Help will be limited, meaning that Zimbabweans' troubles are far from over.

What now awaits Zimbabwe - once Africa's food basket? Agriculture, which is the backbone of Zimbabwe's economy, for one, is on its last throes. Outdated agricultural policies, obsolete farming technologies coupled with bad politics are largely to blame for the country's economic down-turn. Why shouldn't Zimbabwe, now, take advantage of its newfound suitor - China, to revitalize its agriculture? China, for instance, has and continue to benefit from modern biotechnology. Zimbabwe, similarly could benefit immensely if it courts biotechnology. This would make it self-sufficient in food and stop relying on relief aid! Monetary handouts such as the one President Mugabe is craving for are only stop-gap measures to Zimbabwe's food problems.

China is currently the hub of biotechnology in Asia. Since the planting of the first genetically modified crop in the US fifteen years ago, China has aggressively pursued cultivation of genetically modified (GM) crops. So far, it has given regulatory approval to eight varieties of biotech corn, seven types of canola and one of soybeans. As a result, China can now feed its more than 1 billion population without seeking outside help. China is no longer in the list of countries the United Nations (UN) consider in need of food assistance. In a very short period of time, China has transformed its agriculture, effectively moving from recipient of food aid to a donor. Admirable achievement!

China's success in biotechnology can be attributed to a number of factors. One, China, unlike many African countries, has refused to politicize the issue of genetically modified food. It has worked closely with the US to promote a regulatory system based on sound science to expedite GM approvals. This is despite the presence of major political differences between these two countries.

Two, China's enthusiasm in training first-class scientists on modern biotechnology has been steadfast. It has invested billions of dollars in science and technology education . As a result the country is now able to make informed decisions about genetically modified food.

Now that Zimbabwe is engaged with China, can't it take advantage of this new acquaintance to modernize its agriculture? Zimbabwe remains strongly opposed to GM food for no justifiable reasons. Even a time like this when it is facing acute food shortage, Zimbabwe would not allow food aid laced with genetically modified organisms into its territory. Relief organizations are required to produce GMO certificates to certify that food being brought into the country is GM free. Is this necessary at all?

Many a times, African countries have complained about being used as guinea pigs by biotech companies! This is ridiculous. China, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and South Africa are some of the countries from developing world currently growing genetically modified food. Are they guinea pigs?

China, early enough, saw the folly of politicizing the biotech debate. It is now reaping bountifully. A poor country a decade ago, China is now able to bail out a country like Zimbabwe.

When Mugabe travels to Beijing again, China should remind him that its wealth has been accrued from modern biotechnology. And that Zimbabwe should follow suit. Failure to do so amounts to biting the hand that feeds it.

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 http://www.gmoafrica.org.

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