Speaking at the launch of the forum,
Biotechnology refers to scientific techniques that use biological systems, living organisms or their derivatives to make or modify products or processes - for example, to develop seeds that germinate faster or produce bigger yields.
Genetic modification, which is a particular biotech approach, alters the genetic structure of living organisms to confer characteristics such as better resistance to disease and tolerance of heat or water stress.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the most divisive among the various biotechnologies, and
The private sector - including some companies that use GM tools - is backing the new forum in the hope it may eventually influence government policy on GMOs, even though GM is not within its remit.
"Forums like this are important as a country considers the best way to bring innovation to their agricultural industry and how to improve the food security of its people," said Barbra Sehlule Muzata, a spokesperson for
The company produces hybrid seeds used by Zimbabwean farmers, which it says help improve crop productivity and quality. It also offers GM products.
"Similar forums have played a key role in other countries around the world, and we hope
"There is a need to vet rumours and gossip to sieve out the truth based on scientific reports of trials with genuine controls to show differences between non-GM and GM," he said.
According to Robertson, many research papers in peer-reviewed publications show that GM crops require less use of pesticides and herbicides, which protects workers' health and the environment.
Agri-Biotech also promotes plant tissue culture, a breeding technique which it calls "barefoot biotech" because it can be done in a simple laboratory and multiplies crop yields.
"Most good breeding gets you a few percentage (points) of increase - nothing like threefold. Fifty African countries could do with this technology; we could be a hub for providing it with training or exchanges," Robertson said.
Nongovernmental organisations have delivered Agri-Biotech's sweet potato into every province in
The OFAB, the first biotech forum to be hosted in southern
"This is an important development for
The country is already using tissue culture and molecular marker techniques in agriculture, and has developed a maize variety, Sirdamaize 113, that thrives in the low rainfall conditions found in
Acknowledging that some applications of biotechnology are controversial, AfricaBio's chief executive officer, Nompumelelo Obokoh, told
Agriculture minister Joseph Made recently told
At the heart of the GMO debate are claims by proponents that GM crops are a tool to boost food security and end world hunger through hardy, better-yielding crops, especially in the face of climate change.
Critics of GM say these crops have negative implications for ecosystems, human and animal biodiversity, and that conventional agricultural breeding methods have not failed to an extent that would warrant the use of GM.
"Based on considerable scientific evidence, we now know that the current generation of genetically modified organisms is not safe and therefore GMOs should not be used in the food supply," Smith said via e-mail.
He argued that opponents of GM crops "want to deny African smallholders choice, and only allow them to use ideologically approved 'traditional' varieties, which are lower-yielding and leave families hungry".
Busani Bafana is a freelance contributor for the
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