FOOD, politics and health have once again come together in a media-friendly cocktail. Two thought-pieces with opposing views on Genetically Modified Crops were published in the
Dr. Mabaya argues that GM foods are safe, represent an economic opportunity and are already in our food chain. As such, he reasons, preventing Zimbabwean farmers from adopting the technology is not justifiable. Mudede and Hondo, on the other hand, argue that the risks from adoption of GM crops are far too high to justify adoption in
Who is right? In the interests of full disclosure I should say that I am familiar with both Dr. Mabaya and
Mudede, Hondo and Mabaya are due credit for drawing public attention to this issue. The GMO debate is deeply intertwined with issues of equity, ethics, economics, health, trade and environment. If we are to imagine a more sustainable future for our Agriculture, we need to navigate this difficult terrain, hopefully using the tools that science has to offer. In this 'rebuttal' I am hoping to broaden the perspectives on GM technology and hopefully offer an equally valid view about where we want to turn the future of our food over to.
Mudede and Hondo's assertion that GMOs pose medical danger is interesting. Many consumer advocates have blamed GMOs for medical complications. They cite wide-scale funding by agri-business for studies to prove the safety of GMOs and discredit dissenting claims as 'proof' that the evidence is biased and business has something to hide. However, the medical complications claims that are proposed by consumer advocates are exceedingly hard to validate. Indeed, the 2004 research by the journal Nature Biotechnology disproved some of these claims. At the moment the scientific consensus remains that GMO foods pose no dangers.
Mudede and Hondo avoid Dr. Mabaya's argument that
Mudede and Hondo's quasi-moral argument is also interesting but less persuasive. They propose that altering the genetic make-up of crops is morally objectionable as it is against what God intended for mankind. Irrespective of the merits of this view, the fact of the matter is that humans have altered plant genomes over the course of agricultural history. Maize, tomatoes and wheat are far different to their original make-up because of selective breeding.
It is difficult to decide which way to go when public policy and science are at loggerheads. Scientific consensus is that GMO crops pose no danger. Yet, public policy appears to err on the side of caution. Several issues are at play and need careful balancing. It is not surprising that the issue of GM crops is mired in controversy. It transcends the fields of law, agriculture, health, trade, ethics, politics and environment. As such, unless there is deliberate efforts at bringing those fields together, the likelihood of controversy are high. So what to do?
First, after several years of implementing land reform, the time is probably right to take a deeper reflection on our public policy goals for agriculture and where we want to go. The food markets of tomorrow are fundamentally different from today's... not because agriculture has changed so much, but because what we are applying agriculture to has changed dramatically.
Second, we need a more informed sense of the risks we face and to get the politics of risk regulation right. That requires bringing together actors in the regulation of health, safety and environmental risks. Our regulatory politics and policies very much resemble those of
Third, a SADC-wide perspective and approach would be immensely beneficial. In its absence
Then there is the economics of growing and producing food. The big economic question is whether preventing use of GM seeds is rendering Zimbabwean farmers and agricultural products less competitive? An equally compelling economic consideration is how economically reasonable and profitable it is for farmers to plant GM crops if they can be sued because of cross-wind pollination, something they cannot control? Further, is the quality and quantity of food on our supermarket shelves a reflection of competitive advantages enjoyed by South African farmers as a result of GM crops? Data from
A fifth area concerns the rule of law. This comprises policy, legal, administrative and technical instruments to address environment and human health. It includes institutional issues such as regulations and guidelines for hands-on work on genetic modification and risk assessment and management procedures, mechanisms for monitoring and inspection and a system to provide information to stakeholders and for public participation.
And, finally, the science. Scientific consensus is that GM food does not pose any harm. However, the risk mitigation measures mentioned above presuppose the existence of well-functioning scientific capabilities, including for monitoring and inspection. Given the controversy surrounding GM technology,
Rather than seeking to sustain the current ban,
Some people think that
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