BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe (AlertNet) – From poultry products to fish, potatoes to apples, Johnson Moyo, a primary school teacher in Bulawayo, has come to enjoy what many Zimbabweans once considered the finer things in life.
While such foodstuffs might be part of a normal grocery list elsewhere, for Moyo and many poorly paid civil servants like him they were luxuries that have only recently become affordable for the “average man,” as he puts it.
The reason lies in the provenance of the food: it is imported, and some of it is farmed using genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Moyo knows, and he doesn’t mind.
“These items are relatively cheap,” Moyo said. “They are keeping my family fed.”
The cheaper alternatives to locally grown food are particularly welcome in a country where agricultural mismanagement has combined with drought, believed related to climate change, to create chronic food shortages.
Import food wholesalers have sprouted across Zimbabwe’s capital, where items such as poultry, long absent from working-class dinner tables, are sold in bulk cheaply.
“I have been told some of the chicken and fish we eat comes from Brazil and Australia, but it all tastes the same to me,” Moyo said.
While consumers gobble imported GMO products, however, the Zimbabwean government remains opposed to local production of genetically modified food, even as influential lobbyists pressure it to rethink.
Last month, the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) announced it was asking the government to allow farmers to plant GMO crops to boost agricultural production after a succession of poor harvests.
“We will continue pushing for the embracing of GMO production, using GMO technology,” the CZI said in a statement, noting that exporting such food would be a starting point.
Zimbabwe has long opposed the production of genetically modified crops, even though imported GMO products have flooded supermarkets since the easing of stringent import regulations in 2009, when the country suspended the local currency.
Agriculture minister Joseph Made has said previously that the country will not allow farmers to produce GMOs, claiming they contain toxic substances that are harmful to consumers’ health and that they are less nutritious than organic foods.
The minister’s position has been criticised as flawed since Zimbabwean farmers use pesticides and fertiliser, so locally produced food, while non-GMO, is not necessarily organic.
However, there remain policy differences within the troubled coalition government on this issue, as with others. Science and technology minister Heneri Dzinotyiwei said last month that the government was reviewing its anti-GMO policy.
According to Dzinotywei, the safety of GMOs has been confirmed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organisation, as well as the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, a non-profit research organisation.
But there are fears in the agriculture ministry that the call for relaxing the country’s GMO ban could lead to the country being unable to export its crops, and could lead to local seed dealers and farmers being pushed from the market by foreign GMO producers.
Agriculture Minister Made last year described the idea of investment in genetically modified products as an economic blunder, telling state media: “If Zimbabwe produces surplus food for export where would you expect us to export (it to), with most countries now banning GMO foods?”
Made says the government will invest in providing farmers with fertilisers instead of adopting GMO production – even though most countries in the world, contrary to his statement, are open to the importation of GMO foods.
Sentiments on GMO crops remain varied and often fuelled by emotion, but the Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU), which represents indigenous farmers, says the time has come for the government to explore more research on genetically modified crops.
“We are aware of other African countries such as Burkina Faso that have successfully embraced (genetically modified) production in non-edible crops such as cotton. (They) are doing well. Why not us?” said a ZFU official.
For ordinary Zimbabweans who over the years have received food assistance from relatives working in neighbouring South Africa, genetically modified food already has become part of the daily diet.
Tapuwa Gomo, a Zimbabwean development expert based in South Africa, said that adopting genetically modified crops could help farmers grow more food with fewer resources.
“Engineering the ability to fix nitrogen into cereal crops could reduce or even remove the need for chemical fertilisers and increase yields,” Gomo said.
“Zimbabwe must seriously discuss GMO production because, as it stands, it is impossible to talk about economic revival without strengthening agriculture,” he added.
Opponents of the move to GMOs, however, point out that adopting more drought-resistant existing crop varieties or incorporating needed genes through traditional breeding could help solve Zimbabwe’s problems without the need for genetic modification.
Zimbabwe this year is again appealing for food assistance to feed millions of hungry people, having moved from being a food exporter at the turn of the millennium to a food importer. The change was triggered by violent land seizures that disrupted farming activities and by successive droughts.
“If Zimbabwe is to be self-sustaining, locally driven GM technology could be a panacea for the country’s food security problems,” Gomo said.
President Robert Mugabe has in the past tried to ban imports of GMO food from South Africa. But when local producers failed to meet demand, the ban was quickly lifted, highlighting the tricky choices some African countries face in their attempts to promote local food production that has to compete with cheaper GMO imports.
For Moyo and other consumers, however, the GMO controversy has more straightforward ramifications. As long as locally produced food remains expensive, he says, “GMOs are what I will eat.”
Madalitso Mwando is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.