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July 17, 2011

Malawi should okay GMO confined trials

by Moses Michael-Phiri

Are you a fan of cornflakes such that your breakfast is incomplete without it? Do you enjoy imported biscuits, crackers or pasta? Check the label, your food might be made from genetically modified (GMO) maize in
South Africa or America.

While Malawians detest genetically engineered foods, porous borders and poor monitoring mechanisms means they are consuming GMO foods imported into the country without their knowledge. After all, how many of us read the package label of the products we purchase?

So, it seems Malawians are already a GMO food-consuming population.

That is why over 30 local crop scientists and plant breeders...  have asked government to allow confined trials for GMOs to start in the country, since it has a legal framework that provides necessary safety checks and environment for such trials to take place.

Scientists say biotechnology and GMOs will unlock the country’s potential to produce export quality raw material that will enable the country to create jobs and halve poverty.

GMO trials, however, can only start with a guiding policy. In May this year, Malawi launched the National Biotechnology Policy—one of the three legal dockets that aim to strengthen existing research institutions and
improve the country’s legal and regulatory framework for trials and release of GMOs.The policy facilitates the safe application of biotechnology and the structured generation of innovation and intellectual property and rights. found that genetic engineering in general and agricultural biotechnology, in particular, is only at a rudimentary level in Malawi, being confined to the second-generation order characterised by tissue
culture and application of molecular markers within the University of Malawi, especially at Bunda College of Agriculture.

“But if allowed, locally produced GMOs would address socio-economic needs and maximum utilisation of the country’s natural resources,” saysDr. Weston Mwase, country coordinator of the Forum on Agriculture
Research in Africa (Fara) based at Bunda. “The regulatory process started with the enactment of the Bio-Safety Act in 2002; the formulation of regulations in 2007; and approval of the National Biotechnology Policy in 2008. This, we strongly believe, opens the door for GMO trials in Malawi,” he says.

Yet, up to now, Malawi has not approved a single trial to allow scientists test whether GMO crops can boost agricultural production in the country.

But there is hope—one test trial is in the offing. In 2006, Bunda College submitted an application to start confined trials of Bt cotton.

Plant breeder and leader of the expected confined trials, Associate Professor James Bokosi, says Malawi can benefit a lot if Bt cotton succeeds during trial and is granted approval for release.

One benefit of  Bt cotton is that it can help the country combat cotton disease and pesticides, thus increase agricultural productivity and cotton trade.

However, it is a long way to go before Malawi can have GMO cotton seeds released to farmers. Bokosi says it will take over four years if government gives a nod to the Bt cotton confined trials.

But he urges: “It is imperative for Malawi, as a developing nation, to put much emphasis on biotechnology research and development because it can enhance food security; nutritional status; health and well-being;
create jobs by stimulating economic growth; and supporting environmental sustainability.”

While there is little controversy about many aspects of biotechnology and its application, he claims, GMOs have the potential to increase productivity in agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

“GMOs could lead to higher yields in marginal lands. There are already examples of genetic modification helping to reduce the transmission of human and animal diseases through new vaccines and diagnostic tests.

“Rice and maize have been genetically modified to contain pro-vitamin A and iron which could improve the nutritional status of many people in rural areas,” Bokosi explains.

Biotechnology, as with all technologies, has risks that fall into two groups, namely the effects on human and animal health and the effects on crops and environment, according to environmental think-tank Centre for
Environmental Policy and Advocacy (Cepa).

“On human and animal health risk, the policy wants to ensure that caution is exercised to reduce the risk of transferring toxins or of transferring allergenic compounds from one species to another or causing
resistance to drugs for treating certain diseases,” says Dr George Phiri, an entomologist from Cepa.

Bokosi remembers how a bio-safety bill was quickly put through to Parliament for approval.

“Scientists were summoned to give a recommendation to government, a bio-safety bill was to be drafted and other solutions ranged from total denial to milling maize before distribution and prohibiting use of GM
maize for seed,” he recalls.

To avoid a similar scenario in the future, Malawi must act now, Bunda scientists warn.

Nation Online

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