The perspective, by Edward Bwalya Phiri: enhancing Zambia’s food security through biotechnology

Former United States Senator Joseph Isadore Lieberman once posited that, “The way we are going to grow the economy is to invest in people, to invest in innovation, to have the federal government put money in the kind of research that will create the new high-technology, biotechnology industries that will create millions of new jobs.”

And Uganda’s Biotech innovator, Erostus Nsubuga opined in 2018 that, “Biotechnology gives agriculture an edge as a favourable sector to unlocking Africa’s potential in entrepreneurship, especially for the youth. Local private sector players should be involved from the onset.”

On The Perspective today, consideration is on Biotechnology [Biotech]. The Investopedia, an online compendium defines Biotech as the branch of applied science that uses living organism and their derivatives to produce products.” And according to the Biosafety Act No.10 of 2007, Biotech is “the the development of products by exploiting biological processes or substances using intact original or modified organism or by using active cell components”.

Among the applications of biotech are agriculture, medical procedures, pharmaceutical products, food processing, energy production and waste treatment, among others. This write up focuses on the use of biotech in agriculture and food processing. Please note that the word biotechnology is usually used interchangeably with modern biotechnology. In this discourse I will be using the former.

In the early 2000s, Zambia like other countries in the region experienced a severe drought and it resulted into famine. About 4 million people faced starvation, and it was estimated at the time that the nation needed about 120,000 metric tonnes of corn to avert the hunger situation and pull through that period.

The international community pledged support; particularly, the United States of America pledged half the amount of the needed food. And in fulfilling its pledge, the US sent the initial 12,000 metric tonnes while they prepared an additional 48,000 metric tonnes of corn.
However, the Zambian government under the leadership of late President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa SC of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy [MMD] shocked the world when it refused to accept the food aid, because it was genetically modified. Calls to rescind its decision could not be heeded to, even with the mounting pressure from both within and outside the nation.
Off course, government’s concerns could have been compounded by fears and intimations that GMOs caused long-term effects to the consumers. Reports revealed that the European Union had banned some GMO product as a report by its scientists who disclosed that these products could cause allergic reactions in consumers.

The major reason for refusal was that there was little information on the impact of genetically modified organisms [GMOs] on those who would consume the products. Late President Mwanawasa is on record of having remarked that, “We would rather starve than get something toxic… It is also important that our people are protected from eating genetically modified food which can affect their health… Therefore, as a Government, we would rather be cautious and not venture into the unknown.”

And talking to the British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] radio, Zambia’s High Commissioner to London, Silumelume Mubukwanu when asked if his government would accept the Genetically Modified maize, responded that, “The answer is an emphatic no on the grounds that too much is unknown about GM foods yet. The fact that the people are starving doesn’t mean that we should allow them to eat what they don’t know….”

In 2003, Zambia introduced the initial Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy [BBP]. This was to affirm the nation’s stance on GMOs and GM products. This paved way for the legislation of biotech. In 2004, the Zambian government through the help of the Norwegian government, embarked on the establishment of the referral detecting laboratory at Mount Makulu Research Centre in Lusaka. While the Zambian government had committed K1.9 billion [unrebased currency] for infrastructure development, Norway released US$400,000 for the purchase of equipment, legislative processes, staff training and public awareness.

The year 2007 saw the introduction of a bill on Biotech and its subsequent enactment into the Biosafety Act no.10 of 2007. The Act provided for the creation of the National Biosafety Authority, a statutory body mandated with the control of biotech activities. The Act further provides for the Scientific Advisory committee whose primary role is to offer scientific and technical assistance to the National Biosafety Authority.

I am sure the reader would be interested in knowing the pros and cons of Biotech. For starters, there are a number of dangers associated with biotech and they include; food intolerance, toxicity [effects on soil fertility], carcinogenicity [cancerous risk factors] and risk of spreading certain crop diseases, among others.

The existence of the foregoing dangers does not mean that Biotech is utterly unbeneficial. The 2003 Zambian Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy [BBP] states that, “Biotechnology and products of Biotechnology can contribute significantly to economic development of Zambia, especially in the areas of agriculture, health care, environment as well as industry. However, any benefits will only be realised if and when biotechnological development takes place in a manner which is both judicious and sustainable.”

According to Joel W. Ochieng and Anthony Ananga [2018], “Many challenges faced in agriculture can be minimised through the application of various biotechnologies. Low production associated with degraded soils, drought episodes, emergent plant pathogens and pests, and postharvest loses can now be mitigated using suitable biotechnologies that enrich soils, target production traits for improved yields, selective breeding, genetic engineering for insects resistance and drought tolerance.”

And Chinese economist Justin Yifu Lin once said that, “One of the central goals of every developing country is to reach high-income status. Agriculture plays a critical role in transforming economies to reach the goal, along with achieving other essential development goals like ensuring food security and improving nutrition. Therefore, in order to end hunger and undernutrition while accelerating economic growth, agriculture must become a reality.”

An articulate quote by unknown author states that, “Agri-biotechnology…is one of the key forces to promote food security, social progress and economic prosperity in the world.” And former POTUS Barrack Obama, on May 9, 2017, speaking at the Seeds and Chips Global Food Innovation Summit in Milan, Italy said that, “Small and medium-sized farmers would be happy to adopt technologies that will help them do things better without much additional expense.”

And according to Joel W. Ochieng and Anthony Ananga [2018], “Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) is one of the regions that depend mainly on agriculture but have largely remained food insecure. In fact, food insecurity in SSA has progressively worsened since 1970 with the proportion of malnourished population reaching 30 per cent in 2017. Farming in SSA relies on rudimentary methods…leading to poor soil quality…The food production-consumption gap for SSA is projected to widen, allowing food insecurity to reach catastrophic levels in the coming years as majority of smallholder farmers continue aging, while the youth remain less attracted to farming. This will be exacerbated by the projected population growth in the region, with a higher increase than the rest of the world.”

It therefore goes without saying that the answer to Africa’s food insecurity and economic ills lies in the proper use of biotechnology. Apparently, this was the position in the 2003 BBP which stated that, “There is a universal recognition and realisation that biotechnology can contribute significantly to the social and economic development of developing countries such as Zambia.” We cannot therefore afford to forego biotech. For today I will end here; it’s Au revoir, from EBP.

For comments: elbardogma@yahoo.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *