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October 16, 2012

Zimbabwe farmers' group calls for acceptance of gene-modified seed

The Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union has called on the government to drop its long-held opposition to GM seed and cultivation in order ' to increase agricultural output.'

Despite the government's opposition, many maize and soya bean products imported from neighbouring South Africa are on ZImbabwe's store shelves. A significant proportion of those crops grown in South Africa are of the GM variety. It is argued that this effectively obviates much of the government's reasons for keeping the GM ban in force.

How much the adoption of GM seed on its own improve yields will remain as heatedly contentious in Zimbabwe as anywhere else. Zimbabwe's farming problems involve much more complicated factors than the differences between hybrid seed (widely used) and GM seed.

For several years Zimbabwe has experienced deficits of the main staple crop, maize. Yet neighbouring countries Malawi and Zambia, which also officially frown on GM seed and use exclusively hybrid (or farmer-saved) seed have both experienced maize bumper harvests in recent years. Apart from the merits or demerits of GM crops for Zimbabwe, the focus on that one variable as 'the solution' to Zimbabwe's farming woes may be to merely miss the focus on where the real reasons for the country's relatively poor agricultural performance lie.

But the mere call by a senior official of an important farmers' representative group is significant. Until recently
there had been little discussion about GM crops, and the views of opponents in government and in 'civil society' had predominated. That has begun to change quite rapidly in the last year or two.

Amongst the reasons for the government's (or at least the agriculture minister's) continued opposition to GM crops is the standard 'burden of proof-of-their-being-unharmful-to-human-health argument. This is largely neutralized by the fact that any harmful effects to the population are already setting in if large parts of the population are already consuming many products with imported GM maize or soya beans.

The other argument is to protect Zimbabwe's fairly advanced hybrid seed multiplication industry. The country's annual hybrid seed requirement is put at 50,000 tonnes. The seed companies report they currently have stocks in excess of that by 20,000.

But there is no evidence that the seed companies necessarily appreciate their 'protection' from GM seeds by the government. In fact, one head of the (currently hybrid) seed industry has publicly said that they are ready and eager to go into the production of GM seed if and when regulatory approval is given. They do not see hybrid and GM seed production as being mutually exclusive

All these are signs that sooner or later GM crops-farming is coming to Zimbabwe.

African Agriculture

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