Gene revolution.: What next for Zimbabwe?

People have the perception that GMOs have negative impacts on health

It is very much evident that the green revolution did not effect much change in African agriculture, particularly in Zimbabwe.

The green revolution has bypassed us but we can catch up with the gene revolution. Yes, you have read right, it's the G-word.

Zimbabwe and many other African countries have to leapfrog and catch up with the rest of the world in employing cutting edge technologies in the agricultural sector.

Let me bring you up to speed by asking this rhetoric question, when someone who has never owned a mobile telephone buys one for the first time, do they go and look for the classic Nokia 3310 or they just buy a modern mobile phone?

By buying a modern mobile telephone they skip generations of cellphone models and software, catching up with the latest.

With the same token it is imperative that we take a technological leap and embrace the gene revolution.

Technology is not static but dynamic, hence we have to keep abreast of technological developments in all sectors for our nation to thrive.

Many Zimbabweans would be surprised to hear that Zimbabwe was one of the first countries to carry out confined field trials (CFTs) for genetically modified cotton (GM cotton/Bt cotton) in Africa in the late 1990s, at about the same time when our neighbour South Africa adopted the production of genetically modified crops (GM crops).

Unfortunately, in 2005 a ban was placed on all GM crops in Zimbabwe and the CFTs for GM cotton were discontinued.

Last year, a few months ago to be a bit more accurate the CFTs for GM cotton were resumed as a corroboration between the Cotton Research Institute (CRI) and Quton Seed Company (a private cotton seed company).

 In as much as we celebrate this move, one cannot help but ponder on losses the nation incurred by delaying prospective results of the CFTs.

We experienced 18 years, almost two decades of downtime where revolutionary findings could have been discovered and benefited the nation.

Some experts modestly estimate that the adoption (production) of Bt cotton will result in an additional US$ 40 million.

Let me stretch your mind a bit and animate your imagination, let's assume that the CFTs had continued for five more years and positive results would have been recorded for the ensued period, that would mean that the trials would have been concluded in year 2010.

This means that we would have 13 years to current date for the production of GM cotton. Considering the additional US$40 million per annum which comes with the adoption of GM cotton it means that we hypothetically lost US$ 520 million to date.

Mind you I am only using a modest figure of US$40 million, other scientists have higher approximations.

Genetic modification is not only a phenomenon found in the lab but is also inherent in nature, a phenomenon known as horizontal gene transmission. The bacterium Agrobacterium tumafaciens is known for transferring genetic material from one organism to the other in the natural environment.

Some of the crops we eat and make use of today, for example, tea, banana, hops, sweet potatoes etc. have undergone genetic transformation in the natural environment.

We can cut our wheat imports by employing novel plant breeding approaches such as genetic engineering to develop wheat varieties suitable for our climate in a short period of time.

Genetically modified crops will enable us to produce more crop yield per unit area. This allows to conserve the land resources for future generations.

Growing transgenic crops that are resistant to pests and diseases translates to lower production costs for the farmers, hence enhancing profitability of the farming enterprises and it reduces the amount chemical pesticides dumbed in the environment.

More nutritious food can be produced through this science, preventing malnutritional diseases such as kwashiorkor.

The production time of crops and livestock can be shortened, responding to the exponential population growth the world is experiencing. In the wake of climate change genetic engineering can be used to develop pants that can adapt to the shifting climatic regimes. The gene revolution offers endless possibilities to the Zimbabwean economy.

Lately there has been a lot of people coming on social platforms advocating for the ban of GM crops and inciting fear in the public.

 Interestingly most of these people do not have science degrees neither do they have a sound understanding of the science involved in genetic modification. Unfortunately, these people are awarded prime time on air peddling inaccurate information.

As a result, people have the perception that GMOs have negative impacts on health, yet it has not yet been proven so. I understand that genetic engineering is new technology about 50 years old and that precaution should be taken as the potential effects of this science are not well known. Nevertheless, we should not be blinded to the advantages that the technology promises.

A reactionary approach will definitely have us lagging behind whilst the rest of the world gallops ahead in development. Currently our stance is that we can have GM processed foods but cannot grow them. We say that GM crops may have a negative impact on our environment but will gladly consume them. If they were a danger that we portray them to be, why would we consume GM processed maize or any other GM food? Is human health not as important a priority as the environment?

Adopting the GM crops will lead to food security and ensure availability of raw materials in the country. It will result in the production of better quality crops and livestock. People need to be educated on the basic principles of genetic modification of organisms, this also extends to our legislators who are responsible for policy formulation.

Knowledge is power, the old adage says, on the other hand ignorance brings about fear, the fear of the unknown as rightly termed.

This fear will lead to irrational decisions. Those of religious bent will talk of faith being the opposite of fear and vice versa.

As a nation we should take a leap of faith towards the gene revolution. I am not saying that we should haphazardly adopt GM crops and technologies as a nation but make pragmatic premeditated steps towards it. The green revolution passed us by we cannot afford to let the gene revolution take the same course, this is our time to say "Nhasi ndezveduwo", as the late Samanyanga said in his song.

  • Nyasha J. Kavhiza is a PhD scholar at the Agrobiotechnology of the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He is reachable at [email protected]

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