Zimbabwe discussing big biotech issues
According to Robertson, many research papers in peer-reviewed publications show that GM crops require less use of pesticides and herbicides, which protects workers’ health and the environment.
Agri-Biotech also promotes plant tissue culture, a breeding technique which it calls “barefoot biotech” because it can be done in a simple laboratory and multiplies crop yields.
“Most good breeding gets you a few percentage (points) of increase—nothing like threefold. Fifty African countries could do with this technology; we could be a hub for providing it with training or exchanges,” Robertson said.
Nongovernmental organizations have delivered Agri-Biotech’s sweet potato into every province in Zimbabwe under a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization contract, he noted.
The OFAB, the first biotech forum to be hosted in southern Africa, follows a collaboration agreement signed in October by the regional biotechnology umbrella body AfricaBio and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation with Zimbabwe’s National Biotechnology Authority (NBA).
The NBA supports the research, development and application of biotechnology in various sectors, including agriculture and the environment. It is also responsible for GMO surveillance and testing.
“This is an important development for Zimbabwe, which should have long embraced biotechnology,” NBA Board Chairman Sam Muchena said at the signing. “Due to challenges in the country, we are not at the same level as South Africa, for example, and we feel this program will help us pave the way for what should have happened 10 years ago.”
Ida Sithole-Niang, professor of molecular biology and virology at the University of Zimbabwe, urged the government to use the forum to take the biotechnology agenda to a new level in the light of widespread food shortages and low crop yields.
In 2013, Zimbabwe was expected to import more than 1 million tonnes of grain owing to a poor harvest blamed on bad weather, inadequate preparation for the farming season and the after-effects of the 2000 land reform program.
The country is already using tissue culture and molecular marker techniques in agriculture, and has developed a maize variety, Sirdamaize 113, that thrives in the low rainfall conditions found in Zimbabwe’s semi-arid regions.
Acknowledging that some applications of biotechnology are controversial, AfricaBio’s chief executive officer, Nompumelelo Obokoh, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that by establishing a biotechnology platform, Zimbabwe could gain access to the benefits of biotechnology at a time when Africa is looking to science for solutions to food insecurity.