Jeffrey Gogo Harare Bureau
ZIMBABWE imported nearly 121,000 metric tonnes of genetically modified (GM) maize from South Africa between February and July this year, in contravention of the country’s own biosafety laws.
The grain – enough to feed Zimbabwe’s 13 million citizens for an entire month – was mainly for food and processing.
Genetically modified foods are widely considered unsafe for human consumption. They are suspected of causing or multiplying the risk of an array of illnesses including cancers. GMs are produced from seed that has been doctored in laboratories, supposedly making them resistant to disease.
Statistics obtained by this paper from South Africa’s Department of Agriculture show that the imports were by three non-governmental organisations, Louis Dreyfus, Toepfer International and GAPS.
In February, GAPS imported 50,000mt of maize; Toepfer International, a German commodity broking firm, 30,000mt and Louis Dreyfus, a trader of agricultural goods from Netherlands, imported 9,300mt.
Louis Dreyfus took in a further 7,000mt of the staple in March; 3,420mt in May and another 7,000mt in June. For June and July, Toepfer imported a total 13,900mt. The NGOs were fully aware the maize was genetically modified. Mariam Mayet, director at the African Centre for Biosafety in South Africa told Foodmatters Zimbabwe, an online grouping of agriculture experts, that: “We have been informing the Zimbabweans about all the exports . . .” It is unlikely in the melee of emergency food aid necessitated by Zimbabwe’s chronic food shortages in recent years, the grain was clearly labelled ‘GMO,’ for consumer purposes.
It also remains unclear how the imports passed through border control without detection. The government has publicly stated its policy against the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for food, seed, animal feed or processing.
Repeated efforts to obtain comment from Agriculture Minister Joseph Made were unfruitful. His deputy, Davis Mharapira refused to comment saying “talk to the minister. He is the one handling the issue on GMOs.”
Dr Made has on numerous occassions in the past made clear the government’s anti-GMO stance.
Fears are that the maize imports may not have been assessed for risk, leading to contamination with organic grain. Millions of people could have consumed the contaminated grain unknowingly.
In Zimbabwe, risk assessment is an obligation under international agreements such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and national laws which include the National Biotechnology Authority Act of 2006.
The Cartagena Protocol seeks to protect biological diversity from the potential risks posed by genetically modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology.
Domestic biosafety laws are vague on the exemption (or not) of GMO imports during food emergency situations.
Countries under the Common Market for East and Southern Africa, of which Zimbabwe is a member, disallow GMO use, at any time.
The National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe, which has been advocating GMO cotton, says on its website: “Biosafety is the protection of human and animal health and the environment from the possible effects of products of biotechnology.
“Risk assessment is the evaluation of the likelihood of the occurrence of an undesirable event. It is science based, carried out on a case-by-case basis, comparative and iterative.”
However, it is common knowledge that there is no baseline data on the safety of GMOs to the environment and human health in most African countries of the east and south, hence no foundation for the assessment of food and feed safety.
The sustained importation of GMOs has raised questions on the government’s capacity to monitor and control effectively the sphere of unregulated genetically modified grain trade. Zimbabwe’s persistent shortages of food in the past decade have seen numerous non-governmental organisations and the private sector coming to the rescue of hungry villagers.
This has opened the food industry to possible manipulation, increasing the risk of GMO imports, as a last gap measure to avert hunger.
At least 2.2 million people were estimated to be in need of food aid last year.The African Union has recently adopted the revised African Model Law on Biosafety, which recognises the “potential adverse effects on the environment, biological diversity and human health posed by GMOs (that) are causing a growing public concern.”