Policy lags behind reality as GM foods flood into Zimbabwe and public calls for official acceptance increase

Nov 30, 2011

by Chido Makunike

During a severe drought-caused period of maize deficit more than a decade or so ago, Zimbabwe was confronted with the choice to accept or reject donated genetically modified food aid. The government chose to maintain its stance opposing the importation of GM maize as grain, but compromised on allowing it in if it was milled first; as ready-to-use flour. In recent years there have been significantly increased levels of importation of various processed food products known to have a GM component. This is making the official anti-GM policy look increasingly untenable. But as public calls for a revision of the policy increase, a new danger may be an unrealistic expectation of the benefits that GM crops can deliver in a political and economic environment where many of the structural issues that have caused such a steep decline in Zimbabwe’s agriculture remain un-addressed.

Like many African countries, Zimbabwe has been officially suspicious of GM technology, while the public probably largely remains un-interested in the the pro vs. anti debate. The inevitable ‘Frankenfoods’ aspect is cited by opponents, who have been more vocal than proponents until recently. Their argument has been that GM promoters should absolutely prove that there is/will be no harm to the environment or human health.

As elsewhere, the pro and anti arguments on this basis often seem to be more about pre-conceived beliefs than about the scientific ‘proof’ presented, which each side very selectively cites in making their arguments. The debate often more closely resembles two sides emotionally defending their respective, opposing religious views from attack than it does the give and take and the general open-mindedness of scientific discussion.

Unlike elsewhere in Africa, the argument that proprietary, expensive GM seeds that cannot be farmer-propagated and carried over to the next season (second-generation seeds are sterile when ‘terminator gene-’protected, but even if they are not, yields drop dramatically) does not seem to be as strongly made in Zimbabwe. Part of this may be because of the general weakness of the groups opposing GM and their lack of capacity to publicly project their arguments effectively.

Where farmer-saved seeds are the norm, one strong criticism of GM technology is that it will make already poor farmers lose their seed independence, forcing them to seasonally buy the expensive products of what are considered greedy, ruthless seed multinationals who want to rule the world through controlling the food supply. Once GM seeds are widely in the gene pool for any crop, cross-pollination (“contamination” to GM opponents) with non-GM varieties of the crop become increasingly common.

An oft-cited example of the heavy-handedness of GM seed multinationals is Monsanto’s suing of a Canadian canola (rape) seed farmer. His non-GM field had been ‘contaminated’ by a neighbor’s GM crop. When Monsanto was able to prove that although the farmer had not bought the company’s seeds, he was growing them, they sued his pants off for copyright violations. Monsanto may never fully recover from the public notoriety it gained from that one lawsuit.

This frightening scenario is given as the fate that awaits Africa’s mostly poor, small-scale farmers if the aggressive superpower multinationals are able to ‘control’ the continent’s seed market. The companies have sought to deflect this in various ways, including by claiming that in poor Africa they would not charge royalties they do elsewhere for their seeds, nor be as obsessed and aggressive about protecting their seed patent rights .

In Zimbabwe, unlike in many other other African countries, the use of hybrid (non-GM) seed has been the norm for many years, for maize and several other crops. There is also significant use of farmer-saved seed, but this is widely seen as a poor alternative to purchasing fresh hybrid seed each cropping season. One of the many side effects of Zimbabwe’s once mighty commercial agriculture was that over several decades, the idea of higher yields available from hybrid seeds became established in the minds of all farmers, large and small. Own-saved seed is largely seen as a poor second choice used when hybrid seed is unavailable or unaffordable.

As a result, in Zimbabwe the benefits of a farmer being reliant on his or her own harvested and saved ‘free’ seed are largely seen as being of less importance than the ‘dependence’ of annually buying ‘expensive’ hybrid seed, but which more reliably delivers higher yields, all other things being equal. Seed companies and seed research are well-established and are seen as important allies of the farmer, rather than as the efforts of greedy, profiteering enemies.

In this scenario, the introduction of GM seeds, accompanied by careful public relations, would likely be seen as just the introduction of a new product line, rather than as part of a vast conspiracy to manipulate the farmer. So in some ways Zimbabwe is more GM seed-ready than many other African countries, both in structural (research capacity, established seed markets, etc) as well is in terms of potential farmer acceptance.

Still, the official government policy remains opposed to GM seeds, although there are also reports of GM trials taking place. With some of the country’s leading seed research facilities being government-owned, this would suggest a divergence between the political and the technical. Some of that GM research must surely be taking place on government-owned agricultural research institutions.

However, Joseph Made, the PhD. agriculturalist who is the country’s long-serving agriculture minister, has expressed anti-GM sentiments. Joice Mujuru, vice president with a strong interest in farming issues, is also opposed. That opposition is not expressed in any coordinated, sustained way, so comes off appearing not so much as re-stating official policy but as merely two (admittedly influential) individuals expressing personal opinion.

A lot has changed that affects the prospects for GM crops and foods in Zimbabwe recently, with the pace of change seeming to have accelerated in the past year.

With neighboring regional economic and agricultural giant South Africa being an unabashedly GM nation, this was bound to have spill over effects into Zimbabwe. As long as Zimbabwe was food and agriculturally self-sufficient, it could fairly well maintain a GM policy different from its more powerful neighbor. But a poorly planned, sudden and sweeping land reform effort caused agricultural as well as general economic devastation which is only beginning to slowly lift after 10 years.

South African goods flooded in to replace those of Zimbabwean manufacturers who were struggling or had gone under from failing to find previously locally produced raw materials or from the general economic shocks of hyperinflation and many other maladies. The South African products include many processed foods with GM maize as an ingredient.

Zimbabwe had previously been mostly self-sufficient in livestock feeds, whose main ingredients are maize and soya beans. South African GM-maize and soya- containing replacements were increasingly imported to take the slack of the severe dip in agriculture after land reform. As the local poultry industry floundered, GM feed-raised chickens were also imported, and often sold at lower cost than non-GM raised local chickens.

So while government has officially stuck to its anti-GM policy, the reality has been that GM foods are now to a significant extent part of the Zimbabwean food chain. The ‘Frankenstein’ argument for opposing GM has been overtaken by events. If consuming GM foods is going to cause humans to become monsters, Zimbabweans are as much part of the experiment as Americans, Brazilians, South Africans and many others.

While voices in actual support of GM foods have been non-existent or muted, perhaps fearing being burned at the stake of political incorrectness, this has dramatically changed in the last year or so. It is no longer seen as a terrible taboo to come out in open support of a change to a pro-GM government policy.

Some of the newly heard (in Zimbabwe) arguments in favor are as simplistic as some of the long-standing arguments against.

Perhaps one of the most egregious is the idea that the introduction of GM seed alone would result in dramatic increases in crop yields that would miraculously end the country’s maize, soya and other shortages. This is a particularly sad way of arguing for GM seeds because it separates them from all the factors that account for Zimbabwe’s significant, recent and on-going agricultural troubles.

Even with ‘just’ hybrid seed, Zimbabwe was a renowned agricultural power house. The reason it is no longer one is not because the country does not use GM seeds, but has to do with government political policy, farm tenure security issues, lack of farmer access to finance, uneven access to fertilizer and so on and so forth.

Even if a crop’s GM variety was inherently genetically higher-yielding than that same crop’s hybrid/non-GM variety, the cost-benefit ratio would not be in favor of GM if all the other problems plaguing Zimbabwe’ agriculture remain. Rather than this simplistic depiction of GM seed as a magic bullet even in the current farming-negative political and economic climate, it might instead just provide an incremental increase over yields possible with hybrid seeds if the latter were grown in a farming-conducive environment, and there are some who question even that.

But for now, there are people who should know better who talk as if the one, isolated-from-everything else element of using GM seed is what gives maize or livestock farmers in South Africa or Brazil a competitive advantage over their Zimbabwean counterparts.

Government central banker and private chicken farmer Gideon Gono has said, “The government says no to genetically modified foods (GMOs) in Zimbabwe yet it’s shocking that the same government that does not allow its own farmers to produce these GMOs allows them to be imported into the country and compete with what the farmers here produce. I feel it’s a shame to be importing chicken feet and livers from Brazil and other countries after the land reform programme.”

Gono was expressing a lament shared by many chicken farmers; that they are operating under various kinds of unfair practices which make it difficult to compete with foreign producers exporting to Zimbabwe.

But if part of the advantage of the Brazilian chicken industry is cheaper feed because of cheaper, more efficiently-grown ingredients (maize, soya), how much of that is because the crops are GM rather than ‘merely’ hybrid?

Even if South Africa or Brazil did not grow GM maize or soya beans, but depended solely on ‘conventional’ seed like Zimbabwe at present, the resulting livestock feeds and chickens produced would still have countless market-competitive advantages over those of their Zimbabwean counterparts. Among the very many advantages: huge farming economies of scale Zimbabwe cannot duplicate, farming security of tenure, farmer access to finance, predominantly irrigated rather than predominantly rain-fed production, government production and export subsidies, etc, etc, etc.

These are among the real reasons that Zimbabwean maize, soya, livestock or chicken farmers cannot easily compete against those from South Africa or Brazil. If those countries' farmers enjoy GM seed advantages over Zimbabwean conventional seed-using farmers, they are merely on top of the many pre-existing advantages, and are likely to be relatively small compared to the other competitive benefits they build on.

Furthermore, even if GM cropping was allowed in Zimbabwe today, the political, agricultural and economic conditions do not at present exist for the country to optimally squeeze out GM yield advantages over using hybrid seed. For that matter, those macro conditions are currently not optimally conducive to realizing the benefits of any kind of seed used.

GM seeds will require large-scale irrigation, fertilizer and herbicides even more critically than hybrid seeds. If the country is struggling to supply these for its present non-GM based production, why do people expect that introducing GM seeds will negate the negative effects of all these issues? These basic issues are much more critical to the country’s food security and competitiveness than the single, narrow issue of seed type employed. If Zimbabwe could sort out the many issues negatively affecting its agriculture, self-sufficiency in maize, soya, livestock feed and chickens would return even with non-GM seeds. GM seeds might then be more effectively and realistically used to ‘top up’ the maximum per hectare yields achieved with hybrid seeds. Even then, probably only a tiny percentage of farmers would have all the conditions in place for this benefit to be fully realized.

A more realistic means for Zimbabwean maize, soya, livestock and meat producers to survive against foreign competition is to push hard for higher government tariffs on the import of competing products. But even then, this is short-term at best and might still not make them competitive against the many farming and other benefits enjoyed by their South African and Brazilian counterparts. Even with import tariffs, it is still possible that much higher yields, vastly bigger total production, lower overall cost of production and export incentives/subsidies might still make South African and Brazilian meat cheaper than the tariff-protected Zimbabwean product.

GM cropping might eventually have benefits for Zimbabwe, but it will not on its own address the many basic structural or competitiveness problems that the country’s farmers and businesspeople currently face. Those many basic problems have to be solved before the country could expect to reap the maximum theoretical or real benefits of GM seed, or of hybrid or even farmer-saved OPV (open-pollinated variety) seed for that matter. Fix the many basic problems affecting agriculture (a tall order now given the number and nature of the ills), and Zimbabwe could again have bumper harvests, lower costs of production and at least relatively improved competitiveness against the flood of imports consumers naturally flock to over more expensive local alternatives, when they are available at all.

The point is that some of the arguments being used to argue for official acceptance of GM cultivation are off-target, even if they are not necessarily ‘wrong’ as such. GM seed is being expected to neutralize the effects of deep and wide-ranging problems whose causes really have nothing to do at all with what type of seed Zimbabwean farmers plant.

Nevertheless, the day when GM crops and resulting processed products are grown and produced in Zimbabwe seems inevitable and may not be that far off, if the increasing pro-GM discussion in the media is anything to go by. It would not be surprising if some of the GM opponents suspect the ‘sponsorship’ of the sudden flood of pro-GM articles by the GM seed industry, as they sometimes allege is happening in other countries.

A November 14 2011 opinion piece in the Herald included, “It is only logical that we search for a better way of effectively boosting our food production methods. We must search for a method that fully addresses the biological and climatic challenges that have hamstrung the current farming methods. Such a method exists in the mould of genetic engineering. The question is could genetically engineered crops and livestock be the panacea to the perennial food shortages in Zimbabwe?”

It then goes on to recite the standard pro-GM arguments, including “high yields at low costs of production... by eliminating the use of expensive pesticides and herbicides as genetically modified organisms are systematically engineered to resist diseases. In a way, new breeds of cattle that are immune to foot and mouth and other disease could be developed thus safeguarding our national herd and beef supplies.”

Continues the author, “More so, the maturation period of crops and livestock could also be phenomenally reduced resulting in shorter and cheaper production cycles. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could also be tailor made to suit our shifting climatic conditions. This will allow our crops and livestock to withstand the vagaries of weather such as drought thus guaranteeing better yields for the farmer and adequate food supplies for the country. Crops produced through genetic engineering are much cheaper than those produced through conventional methods. This will invariably translate to greater affordability and accessibility of basic food to many people and thus stem the malignant food shortages.”

As the writer points out, “Genetically engineered foodstuffs have flooded our markets due to our present incapacitated position to meet our total food requirements.”

He is on more uncertain, controversial grounds when he follows this last bit up with, “ Unfortunately, these cheap imports are threatening the viability of local industries that rely on costly non-genetic operational methods.”

Like Gono, he probably is attributing to GM crops foreign competitiveness advantages which are mostly due to many other farming and non-farming factors, not the use by Zimbabwe of “non-genetic operational methods.”

Of course almost all his points are hotly disputed by opponents, but for such an abashedly pro-GM article to feature in the main government paper is relatively new and possibly significant. This is particularly so considering the other recent signs of a warming up to the idea of accepting the ideology and technology of GM, following the de facto acceptance of GM products in the Zimbabwean food chain.

The Consumer Council of Zimbabwe remains opposed to GM foods, using the standard arguments heard in the rest of the world.

A June article quoted Victor Chisi, a CCZ official as saying, "As a result of liberalization, a lot of products are finding their way into Zimbabwe and some of them could be genetically modified.Genetically modified food looks like any other food, sometimes even better and it's very difficult to identify."

"All genetically engineered food should be labeled," continued Chisi. "It's the consumers' right to know what they are buying and eating. While in Europe there is a lot of pressure to urge consumers to resist it, in Zimbabwe not much is known about it. But indications so far show that the food has side effects relating to health such as cancer and hypertension. The full picture has not been un-ravelled yet."

What is interesting about Chisi’s statement is the implicit acceptance from even a prominent body such as the CCZ that GM foods are now a fact of life in Zimbabwe, never mind what the official policy is. The focus of even opponents is no longer ‘let us keep GM food out of Zimbabwe,’ but has shifted to how to try to regulate it, such as with labeling.

An article in the Herald of November 4th had Mario Beffa, chairman of the Livestock and Meat Advisory Council, calling attention to the ‘urgent need to lift the ban on GMOs.’

Beffa said it should be lifted, “because the GMO ban is making the availability of stockfeed difficult since our farmers are failing to meet the demand.”

The Herald quotes Dr Jacqueline Mutambara, agricultural economist, as coming out in support of this stance with, “GMO soya and maize are cheaper than non-GMO soya and maize. Substituting the latter for the former in pig diets will reduce the price of feeds, which currently constitute 85 percent of the total cost of pig production. This will reduce the cost of raising pigs and thus improve the profits.”

Even if GM maize and soya (or livestock feed made from them) from Brazil or South Africa are cheaper than their Zimbabwean conventional equivalents, does that follow that Zimbabwean GM maize or soya would automatically, necessarily be cheaper than conventional Zimbabwean maize/soya; or even cheaper than imported GM maize/soya?

With all the existing problems Zimbabwean agriculture faces in general, would GM seed’s yield potential be achieved, when those same problems are resulting in the country failing to achieve the yield potential of its hybrid or OPV seed? If the GM seeds (and the closely associated other inputs) cost significantly more than hybrid seed, the hope is that this will be offset by much higher yields, income and profits. But if there is insufficient rain (since irrigation capacity has greatly decreased in the last decade), fertilizer, finance; in addition to all the other problems that affect farmers today, why is it taken as an unquestioned given that GM seeds will produce net benefits in this scenario?

It is not likely that anywhere in the short term Zimbabwean GM farmers could be yield-competitive with South African or Brazilian GM farmers, who do not have the same many and significant farming-environment challenges. Other reasons need to be given as advantages of the uptake of GM seed, certainly not that they can make Zimbabwean producers suddenly on par with those from Brazil or South Africa in terms of competitiveness (i.e. high yield per hectare and high total tonnages to offset low prices to consumers, etc.) That is before we even throw in the added curve ball of subsidies foreign farmers often enjoy that ‘artificially’ add to their competitiveness in a way a Zimbabwean farmer cannot expect from his or her own government, which is struggling just to pay its employees. They can account for a Zimbabwean farmer with yields equal to a Brazilian or South African still being less competitive because he has none of his costs subsidized.

GM farming is almost certainly coming to Zimbabwe, and perhaps soon. But by people like chicken farmer Gideon Gono and economist Jacqueline Mutambara talking about it in ‘magic bullet’ terms, they raise unrealistic expectations about the benefits it can deliver, especially under the country’s present farming conditions. They may also unintentionally deflect focus away from what should be concerted, urgent measures to fix the many other structural economic and political problems that negatively affect farming in Zimbabwe. Only if and when many of these basic problems are addressed can there be hope of any kind of seed; hybrid or GM, being able to deliver the promised or hoped for high yields and downstream benefits.

Leading company SeedCo seems to take it as a given than that GM seeds will soon get the green light in Zimbabwe. One would expect the company to have its ear close to the ground; to know what may be happening in policy circles long before the general public does.

A November 13 2011 article in Newsday quotes SeedCo CEO Morgan Nzwere talking about the company’s strong recovery from the severe land-reform related disruptions of recent years. He said the company was engaged in ‘increased investment in research activities to adopt new breeding technologies.’

With no further elucidation of what that meant, the reader only gets a hint in the following statement that, “All outstanding issues on technology agreement with Monsanto have now been sorted out. This is one way of getting ourselves ready for genetically modified organisms.”

This was a momentous statement that cried out for many clarifying questions, but was mentioned in an almost off-handed way. It begged for Newsday to dig deeper, ask many more questions about its implications. Was Nzwere implying that government approval of GM seed was on the horizon? That would not really be surprising, and is it seems clear that there is something in the air over this issue.

If the ZANU-PF ‘senior partner’ of the current coalition government is undecided and dragging its feet on a GM acceptance that seems almost inevitable now, where would current ‘junior partner’ the MDC stand on the issue of GMOs if it gained effective controlling power?

The MDC has taken a clear position on this. In a statement headed ‘Resolutions of the MDC 3rd post Congress Executive Committee meeting -12 October 2011, Harvest House,’ item 8 is ‘Government Support to Agriculture.’ Clause 8.3 xvii states, “In the absence of any contrary scientific research the State should carefully embrace GMO technology in agriculture.”

While many GM opponents insist that the ‘burden of proof’ of the safety of the technology and its products to human health and the environment must rest on its promoters, the MDC’s position is instead a default acceptance of the safety/benefits of GM technology unless there is compelling evidence otherwise.

The two main stances of opponents and supporters in this regards can be endlessly picked apart, and there are activists on both sides of this agro-ideological divide who passionately do so. But the only point of interest here for now is the clear embrace of GM technology by a major political party that it is not inconceivable to imagine as being in the government driving seat in the next few years.

So imported GM products are not only widely and increasingly consumed in one form or another in Zimbabwe today, but there are plenty of signs that the official acceptance of the local cultivation of GM seeds might not be far behind. The public has pretty much embraced GM foods, even if not quite given a clear choice over the matter. All the government would be doing by lifting the ban on GM seeds and cultivation would be playing catch up with the reality on the ground.

If only opinion makers and various ‘experts,’ who really should know better did not fall into the trap of thinking and propagating the idea that simply and almost solely by virtue of being gene-modified, these seeds will somehow obliterate or negate all the self-caused structural problems facing Zimbabwe’s economy and agriculture. It is not even close to being a chicken and egg situation.

The many structural problems of Zimbabwe’s agriculture must be addressed first before it can be hoped that the introduction of GM seeds will account for dramatic productivity and competitiveness gains. It cannot be the reverse; that GM seeds, even with the many other agricultural/economic problems still unsolved, will miraculously usher in a Zimbabwean farming and business boom.

In very short order, the anti versus pro debate in Zimbabwe has largely become irrelevant as a result of being overtaken by economic events. As GM acceptance increasingly becomes a mainstream position for the first time, a new danger and distraction looms. It is of a possible misdirection of hopes and efforts on it as a possible quick miracle solution to the country’s food security and agricultural problems, at the expense of continued strong focus on the many more basic (also more difficult to solve) structural issues that are the real reasons for Zimbabwe performing vastly below its agricultural potential.

The Zimbabwe Review


Post a Comment