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A clause in the Bio-safety laws of the Kingdom of Swaziland has put on hold the trials and possible adoption and application of bio-technology in agriculture production in the country.

According to the farmers and the biotechnology suppliers, the liability clause in the Bio-safety Act of 2012 has hindered biotechnology product-testing processes in Swaziland including research in agriculture and the university.

Subsequently, the COMESA Alliance for Commodity Trade (ACTESA) in collaboration with NEPAD (Africa Network of Bio-safety Expertise) organized a sensitization programme and study tour of biotech cotton fields in South Africa on 11 -12 May 2016 for Swazi Members of Parliament to help in breaking the impasse.

Eleven legislators drawn from two (Parliamentary) Portfolio committees; Agriculture and Environment participated in the programme.

"The aim of this programme is to enhance the understanding lawmakers in Swaziland on biotechnology and biosafety issues to make informed decisions that will enable the country benefit from the technology,” Dr Getachew Belay, Senior Biotechnology Policy Advisor (ACTESA) said.

Chairman of the Portfolio Committee on Agriculture of Swaziland , Hon Dr Titus Thwala who gave the opening address stated that there were major concerns in putting the law into practice.

“The Act as it is now has thwarted farm production of cotton and negatively affected the livelihoods of farmers,” Dr Thwala said. “This sensitization programme thus comes at an opportune time to help the Members of Parliament make decision on way forward.”

Swaziland embraced biotechnology as a strategy to address agricultural productivity challenges especially on its 3000 hectares of conventional cotton where insect damage has become a disincentive to cultivate the crop given the high cost of spraying.

During the 2014-2015 season, the Swaziland Cotton Board (SCB) tested Bt-cotton on demonstration plots and organized farmers field days. According to SCB, farmers were content with the technology and would like to try it in cultivation. However, the trials could not proceed in 2015-16 season owing to the liability clause that states that all operators are jointly and severally liable for any damage caused by GMO within the value chain.

Bt cotton is named after the bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis from where the insect resistance gene was obtained and introduced into the cotton thus making it resistant to the African Boll worms which pose the greatest threat to cotton farming.

Technology owners feel they should not be held liable to certain liabilities of GMO or those that they have no control over. Swaziland has therefore not benefited from the technology even after passing a Bio-safety Act four years ago.

Globally, cotton is one of the crops that has benefited from genetic engineering technology with close to 70% of the crop being the genetically modified variety.

Dr Belay said the discussions with the lawmakers and the field visit will greatly assist them to reach the appropriate informed decision.

“As much as it is about Swaziland, your commitment at the end of the workshop is also about COMESA region on how to safely and judiciously apply biotechnology to the benefit of our regional economies,” Dr Belay told the lawmakers.

Various Swaziland agencies participated in the programme including the Cotton Board, the Environment Authority, the Ministry of Agriculture, the University of Swaziland and media.