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The organizers of this workshop would like to thank the following: Friedrich Ebert-Stiftung for funding and co-organizing the workshop with Research Council of Zimbabwe. The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) both for providing funds to host the workshop. We also wish to thank the participants for lively participation during the workshop.

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The science of genetic engineering is a fast expanding field. This science has greatly increased our ability to manipulate the inherited characteristics of plants, animals and microorganisms. There are opportunities to increase productivity, through genetic engineering, in plant and animal production enterprises, pharmaceutical and chemical industries and in food processing. In recent years cloning of animals and in particular human beings has been a topic of much debate

The opportunities that genetic engineering may offer also arouse concerns about their potential effects on the environment, the dangers to human health and cultural and ethical consideration.

The workshop on "The Impact of Genetic Engineering on Agriculture and Human Health" was organized with the aim of analyzing and discussing information and relevant studies on the possible impact of genetic engineering in Zimbabwe and to make recommendations on procedures to follow in the handling of research and other aspects related to genetic engineering. The information in these proceedings should therefore be useful to researchers, policy makers civil society and the general public.

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Executive Summary

The workshop on the Impact of Genetic Engineering on Agriculture and Human Health started with an overview of recombinant DNA technology. The ability of scientists to splice or cut DNA using restriction enzymes has opened up many opportunities of extracting genes and synthesizing new ones and inserting them into different organisms. Expression of these genes has resulted in the production of many industrial, pharmaceutical and other useful products. It was noted that biotechnology has been more effective in production of pharmaceutical and industrial products than in agriculture.

The role of genetically modified organisms in Crop agriculture was discussed. It was noted that whereas crop productivity was increasing in other regions of the world, it was decreasing in Africa although the rate of population increase was very high. It was considered that advances in biotechnology could provide some answers to the problem of reduced crop productivity. Biotechnology targeted at insect resistance (stalk borers, cotton bollworms), virus resistance (maize streak), drought tolerance, herbicide tolerance, quality and marker assisted selection could positively impact on crop productivity.

However, terminator technology which involves insertion of genes to render them unable to germinate in the second generation should not be allowed in Zimbabwe because our farmers generally depend on retained seed.

All products of genetic engineering should comply with Biosafety regulations. Consideration of the introduction of GMOs should be on a case by case basis and in relation to trade with other countries, environmental concerns and human health.

The role of GMOs and vaccines in livestock production was discussed. Traits that could be targeted for genetic engineering are disease resistance, feed conversion efficiency, meat and milk production. These traits have conventionally been improved by phenotypic selection. Biotechnology can speed up the selection process by shortening the generation time. However there is need to be mindful of chances of "genetic accidents" by speeding up of genetic modification.

With vaccines, biotechnology can be used in the development of gene vaccines instead of live vaccines in current use. Such gene vaccines can be constructed to be broad spectrum and would have a longer shelf-life.

Technologies involving artificial insemination (AI) and embryo transfer (ET) can also be used to increase animal productivity. AI involves semen collection, dilution and storage and insemination. ET involves a collection of fertilized eggs from a cow and transfer to a foster dam. Both technologies are mainly used by commercial farmers and not by the smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe.

AI and ET are important in the import and export of genetic materials, easing of transportation and storage and better quarantine control. AI and ET are not controversial and can be used to improve and rebuild the national herd. Success of the technologies depends upon overcoming problems of cultural beliefs, animal husbandry practices and lack of skills particularly in the smallholder sector.

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There is need for legislation on AI station set-up and regulations governing applications of ET. Import and export of semen and embryos should be controlled to avoid genetic piracy.

The important role that is played by the GMOs in the production of pharmaceuticals and industrial products was emphasized. It was noted that plants and other organisms can be engineered to produce specialized products for example transgenic soyabeans can now produce oleic acid at 85% up from 25%.

On human health, genetic engineering involves two main aspects, reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning.

Reproductive cloning involves creation of genetically identical beings through insertion of a nucleus from body cells into a denucleated egg cell of the same individual. This type of cloning should not be allowed in Zimbabwe because of ethical considerations.

Therapeutic cloning is being used in Zimbabwe in research in embryo development, source of cells for transplantation therapy and therapies for degenerative/inherited diseases. This type of genetic engineering should continue in Zimbabwe.

Indigenous knowledge systems which include our culture and medicines should be taught in our education system rather than concentrate on Western education and culture. For this to be realized there should be budgetary provisions in the national budget. The export of local traditional medicinal plants which get patented by multinationals and the medicines resold to us at high cost should be controlled.

Biosafety issues refer to the safe application of products of biotechnology. The safe application of transgenics should include assessments of risk in terms of environmental damage, effects on consumers and health considerations.

For research on genetic engineering to be safe, there is need to observe the laws governing research on GMOs. In Zimbabwe, the Biosafety Board should supervise the research.

The International Biosafety Protocol should be carefully discussed to ensure maximum benefit for the country from products of genetic engineering before final agreement.

There is mounting rejection of GMOs in the developed world. Zimbabwe must decide the way forward in the face of mounting rejection of GMOs.

After discussions of the above issues the following recommendations were made:

  • All on-going research in genetic engineering and all intended new research should be approved by the Biosafety Board.

  • Transgenic material available in the region and suited to our environment should not be unnecessarily delayed by time for release but however the entry point is the Biosafety Board.

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  • Concerning genetic and sub-unit gene vaccines, there is need for more information on operation and persistence in animal products and possibilities of horizontal transfer.

  • Labeling of products of GMOs is essential so that consumers make informed choices. Government should push for agreement on labeling GMO products. There is also need to do quality tests to detect GMOs in foods.

  • The protection of already established markets should be seriously considered in the adoption of products of genetic engineering. For example we have to ensure that products of biotechnology do not harm the beef exports to the EEC.

  • Concerning the low allocation to research it was recommended that government should allocate more funds to research and this should be targeted to small-scale farmers.

  • It was noted that trading in products of biotechnology was linked to many of the international undertakings which government has already signed and yet there are still may outstanding issues needing thorough discussion nationally. It was strongly recommended that government should sign international agreements after thorough consultation with experts in the country or include these experts to the negotiations.

  • There is need for harmonization of legislation between offices in the country issuing permits to ensure consultation between authorities.

  • Scientists should be conversant with the Biosafety Regulations and guidelines in Zimbabwe.

  • Concerning the export of germplasm it was recommended that there is need for agreement on any GMOs produced particularly in relation to payment of royalties.

  • It was noted that because of advances in the West in genetic engineering, the tendency in Zimbabwe will generally be to import the technologies. It was suggested and encouraged that partnerships should be established between exporters of the technology in the west and local scientists to speed up capacity building.

  • Our national stance on GMOs should take precedence over international conventions e.g. WTO.

  • Reproductive cloning should be exercised cautiously on non-humans and not on humans whilst therapeutic cloning should be encouraged and be adequately funded.

  • It was noted that our current biosafety and phytosanitary regulations are not effective in preventing the importation of GMOs and need to be tightened. Customs and Excise Department needs to be made aware of this.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | August 2001

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