SADC countries have been urged to step up efforts to promote public awareness on biosafety issues surrounding modern biotechnology applications and products to help people make informed decisions on the opportunities and risks associated with these emerging technologies.
Biosafety experts from South Africa and Zimbabwe who met recently in Harare at a workshop on communication and engagement on biosafety issues told Zimpapers Syndication that it was important for Sadc member states to strengthen the understanding of biotechnology issues so that people could fully understand the health, environmental and consumer protection regulations that exist in individual member states.
“Communication and engagement on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and biotechnology applications is important even though there are lots of disagreements around the issues,” said Dr Hennie Groenewald, head of Biosafety South Africa.
Biosafety South Africa is a platform initiated by the National Department of Science and Technology to support innovation in biotechnology, safe handling and management of biotech products and applications.
“We need to communicate and engage the public about biosafety issues so that people understand GMO issues very well and are not swayed by misinformation,” said Dr Groenewald.
“There are huge opportunities associated with biotechnology and we need to build public confidence on how our regulatory authorities are working to protect consumers from risks that come with new and emerging technologies.”
Dr Jonathan Mufandaedza, head of the National Biotechnology Authority, said it was important for Zimbabwe and South Africa to share experiences on biotechnology issues.
“Sharing experiences is very critical for us as a region,” he said. “We need to learn from each other as countries in the Sadc region. Interaction with South Africa which has a lot of experience on GMO issues can help us learn how they are working to instil public confidence on biotech issues as well as how research in that country is advancing.”
Biotechnology is the use of living organisms to produce a product or service which is beneficial.
Zimbabwe has legislative instruments in place to allow the processing of applications for research up to the open quarantine or confined field trial level.
The country still maintains a ban on the commercial release of GM crops due to health and environmental safety concerns.
South Africa adopted GM technology in 1997 and has had significant experience and expertise in the effective regulation of GMOs.
Dr Groenewald said it was important for people to understand that extensive food safety assessments are performed to provide science-based evidence that food derived from GM crops are safe for consumption.
“There is a lot of misinformation going around in the region and the media and regulatory authorities need to play their part in educating the public around safety regulations,” he said.
“We need to do more to engage the public and this will help us build the necessary public confidence for people to realise the benefits that come with biotechnology.”
Dr Liezel Gouws, a project manager for Biosafety South Africa said better communication strategies were needed to allay public fears over GMOs.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there and we need better communication strategies to build trust and counter misinformation,” she said.
“Increasing confidence and awareness should be our main responsibility. It is our responsibility to teach people what biotechnology is all about.
Universities in South Africa and Zimbabwe are churning out students with biotechnology degrees and what’s the point that after you have studied so long and gotten your PhD and knowledge, you can’t share that knowledge for the benefit of society.”
The biotech expert also challenged science communicators and regulators to promote the use of local languages to engage the public on biotechnology related issues.
Zimbabwe and South Africa signed a Memorandum of Understanding on science technology and innovation to help develop human capital and share knowledge.
The development of GMOs has become a contentious issue in Africa and across the world.
Experts agree that the advancement of science and technology offers huge opportunities for improving the well-being of people and the environment despite concerns around health and environmental risks.
They say Sadc countries should not lag behind in the adoption of GM technologies but should build robust biosafety systems to address the safety concerns.
Biosafety refers to the protection of human and animal health and the environment from the possible effects of products of biotechnology.
“It is critical to ensure that adequate care is taken to consciously inform the populace of the benefits and processes related to these innovations,” a senior Zimbabwe Government official said at the workshop.
Sadc countries have a low uptake of biotech food crops due to lack of awareness and stiff resistance, scientists say.
University of Zimbabwe biochemist, Professor Idah Sithole-Niang said the adoption of agricultural biotechnology has lagged behind compared to the rapid rates seen in the medical and health sectors.
“We need to take agricultural biotechnology seriously to address food and nutrition security issues in our region,” she said. “There is a lot of work going on in our labs and we need to find meaningful ways to help improve the livelihoods of our farmers through the adoption of biotech crops.”
Lack of awareness and a constrained regulatory environment had also slowed down the uptake of agricultural biotechnology.
“Lack of awareness of the benefits and the regulatory framework has affected the tide towards the adoption of biotechnology. The victim mentality has been largely to blame for this.
“We think of ourselves as victims of the technology. The fact is that our public institutions and universities have been doing research on biotech crops for years and this has not moved to the commercialisation stage,” a biotechnology expert said.
The regulatory process in some Sadc countries is so burdensome and makes everything unpredictable, experts say.
“There is fear of change and challenging of the status quo. There is so much resistance and that push and pull effect,” said one expert.
According to researchers, the production of biotech crops increased 110-fold from 1996 with countries now growing the crops on 2,1 billion hectares worldwide.
The global value of the biotech seed market alone was $15,8 billion in 2016. A total of 26 countries, 19 developing and seven industrial grew biotech crops.
By 2016, at least four countries in Africa had in the past placed a GM crop on the market. These included Egypt, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan.
But due to some temporary setback in Burkina Faso and Egypt, only South Africa and Sudan planted biotech crops on 2,8 million hectares
South Africa is one of the top 10 countries that planted more than one million hectares in 2016 and continues to lead the adoption of biotech crops on the African continent.
Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria have transitioned from research to granting environmental release approvals while six others — Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Swaziland and Uganda made significant progress towards completion of multi-location trials in readiness for considering commercial approval.
But the road to the adoption of GM crops is still littered with mines. Resistance is still stiff due to fear and public mistrust.
Supporters of GM crops have to grapple with vocal anti-GMO activists, limited capacity to deal with the processing of GM research applications, bureaucratic delays in approving field trials, mistrust and resistance from key government decision makers and limited public awareness of the issues surrounding research and development of GM crops.
In addition, they have to contend with issues related to disease resistance, bottlenecks encountered when co-ordinating with other line ministries, trade-related restrictions, biosafety regulation and the overwhelming influence of multinational companies, Governments and their sidekicks — NGOs.
And, despite the threats, biotechnology experts say benefits from the biotech agro-linked industrial development outweigh the threats.
Most Sadc countries have expressed concern over declining output for crops such as cotton and others due to bollworm pest infestations.
But these could be readily addressed by the adoption of GM cotton which resists attacks from bollworms.
Calls are now growing for the countries to consider the adoption of GM crops to increase employment opportunities through the agricultural crop value chain and enhanced opportunities for industrial growth. — Zimpapers Syndication