By Benedict Tembo
In 2002, President Levy Mwanawasa shocked the world when he declined to receive GMO maize from the United States of America at the height of Zambia’s worst droughts.
Instead President Mwanawasa ordered thousands tonnes of the GMO yellow maize out of the country. His argument was that there was still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the biosafety of GMO foods
Since then, the country has made strides towards formulation of a legal framework which culminated in the creation of the National Biosafety Authority as a regulator for GMOs. Debate around GMOs has however remained fierce. Zambia has continued making progress towards embracing of biotechnology.
Recently, Zambia began the process of developing a genome editing communication strategy. The five-day consultative meeting of stakeholders who included biotechnology experts, health experts, representatives from civil society, academia and the media convened in Lusaka to develop a genome editing communication strategy.
Participants were satisfied with the outcome of the meeting which they envisage will go a long way in not only helping stakeholders communicate biotechnology issues clearly and enable the country benefit from the technology to enhance agricultural production and productivity.
Molecular biologist Evans Kaimoyo longs for a day when the technology can be conducted and performed by the country’s scientists and young students.
“The workshop has opened a real potential for me to explore an opportunity to network with fellow scientists for collaboration,” Dr Kaimoyo, a senior lecturer in School of Natural Sciences, Department of Biological Sciences said.
He has already identified rice as one of the candidate crops for genome editing.
Dr Kaimoyo says rice has a relatively easy genetic structure and offers real opportunity for generating better yielding, disease resistant and even hybrid varieties.
“I hope to find the most logical starting point where genome editing could be applied with the least technical huddles encountered,” he said.
Sody Munsaka, a medical practioner was upbeat on the application of genome editing in his field.
“For us in science is to lobby for funding for laboratories and equipment to develop these technologies,” Dr Munsaka, who is Dean, School of Health Sciences at the University of Zambia, said.
The Zambia Agricultural Women Research and Development (ZaWARD) is enthusiastic about the development.
“As ZaWARD, we were very happy to be one of the key stakeholders that were identified to contribute towards the development of the communication strategy,” ZaWARD representative Mutibo Chijikwa said.
Ms Chijikwa says her organisation is cognisant of the fact that genome editing, biotechnology issues and the GMOs are very new and sensitive particularly in Zambia.
“So coming up with a strategy that is going to promote dialogue, promote open conversation about genome editing issues and GMOs is the right way to go,” she said.
Ms Chijikwa is happy that the communication strategy once validated, will enable stakeholders to listen to one another and look at the risks, the fears people have is the right way to go.
She says ZaWARD, a membership body comprising smallholder farmers, mostly women and youths, scientists and academia, will be happy to be part of the discussions, implementation and are looking forward to access the technology for research and development.
African Union Development Agency (AUDA)-NEPAD head of Science, Technology and Innovation Olalekan Akinbo says genome editing reduces biodiversity loss by 70 percent as spraying of chemicals is reduced due to good quality seeds.
Dr. Akinbo says the technology promotes food security since good quality seeds are a prerequisite for increased crop production.
He was particularly happy with the deliberations held under the auspices of Dziwa Science Trust and declared his mission to Zambia a success.
“This mission is unique because a messaging document on advocacy is developed and the Ministry of Technology and Science was in attendance. My hope is that things will turn around in policy execution.
In Zambia,not just capacity buildings over years,” he said.
Zambia is one of the six out of the 55 AU countries which have been selected to develop a Genome Editing Communication strategy by the AU.
The other countries are Burkina Faso, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria because of the political will for the technology, including policy environment and biosafety Acts.
Benedict K. Tembo