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Lusaka, Thursday, March 23, 2017: The application of modern biotechnology could be one possible option in addressing the multi-faceted development challenges facing agriculture in the COMESA region.

According to Assistant Secretary General of COMESA, Ambassador Dr. Kipyego Cheluget, biotechnology is surrounded by controversies especially in agriculture despite the sector being so important in the region in terms of GDP contribution, employment and foreign exchange earnings.

Amb. Cheluget was addressing Zambian Ministers and Members of Parliament during their sensitization and awareness workshop on Biosafety and Biotechnology.

The objective of the workshop was to provide accurate and balanced information to the policy makers about biosafety and biotechnology and share empirical experiences from African countries that have adopted agricultural biotechnology.

“COMESA is cognizant of the controversies and sensitivities surrounding the GMO’s but what is important is to take advantage of biotechnology on a case-by-case basis without compromising biosafety and focus on improving the livelihoods of the majority of small-scale farmers,” Amb. Cheluget told the lawmakers.

He observed that cultivation of GM crops has reached 188 million ha in 28 countries globally, including those in Africa and in our region. This is after more than 20 years since the advent of GM crops on the global scene.

In COMESA, member States are at different stages in biotechnology policy choices and capacity. Sudan is at the commercial release level while Kenya, Malawi, Ethiopia, Egypt, Swaziland and Uganda are at the product testing trials.

The Zambian Minister of Higher Education and Technology Hon Prof Nkandu Luo who opened the workshop urged local scientists to revitalise research and put science on top of the national agenda.

The Minister stressed the need to enhance communication on biotechnology to enable good implementation and gather support from policy makers noting that stakeholders in Zambia had exhibited limited knowledge on biosafety and biotechnology issues.

“Issues of GMOs remain contentious and misunderstood and therefore my Ministry, through the NBA has taken up this initiative to create awareness in order for the nation to have a new perspective and revisit its existing biotechnology and biosafety policy,” the Minister said.

She said that although Zambia had put up pieces of legislation on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) products and built the capacity for genetic engineering, misinformation on the matter was still prevalent.

“Any new agricultural product which appears to be large in size as opposed to what was prevalent in the past is termed as a GMO product,” she said.

“In our engagement with National Biosafety Authorities (NBA), we are aware that there is interest to test insect resistant Bt-Cotton varieties. But on the other hand, the Zambia Biosafety Act of 2007 is highly precautionary, indeed prohibitive for researchers to start trials.”

She expressed optimism that the sensitization of the parliamentarians though experience sharing from other COMESA member states would help them make the right policy decisions on the way forward for GM crops in Zambia.

The Chairperson for National Biosafety Authority, Dr. Paul Zambezi, said his organization will promote safe application and use of biotechnology in national development to ensure safety for human and animal health as well as safety of the environment. This would be done through a rigorous risk assessment process.

The Minister paid tribute to COMESA-ACTESA and NEPAD/ABNE (African Bio-safety Network of Expertise) for their support to the NBA and Zambia.