Zimbabwe lifts ban on imports of genetically modified mealies

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Zimbabwe has quietly lifted a ban on imports of genetically modified (GM) mealies for the first time in 12 years as the southern African nation begins to take action to avert what could be its worst famine.

While GM mealie imports from South Africa are being allowed, the grain is carefully quarantined and is milled into mealie meal, a national staple, three officials with knowledge of the situation said.

They asked not to be identified because an announcement had not yet been made.

Currently, mealie meal, which is used to make the staple food known as sadza, is in short supply across the nation.

Zimbabwe is battling its worst drought in 40 years and is in the midst of an economic collapse, leaving about 8 million people, or more than half the country’s population, in need of food aid.

Aside from in South Africa, GM mealies are shunned across sub-Saharan Africa, and steps are being taken to ensure the grain doesn’t enter national seed stocks in Zimbabwe.

A logistics team has been sent to South Africa to have oversight of the grain import exercise, one of the officials said.

Plans are also underway to provide special clearance for trucks bringing in the grain to avoid delays at southern Africa’s busiest border, Beitbridge, between South Africa and Zimbabwe.

The country’s mealie harvest is expected to plunge by more than half this season, leading to a probable supply deficit of between 800 000 tons and 1 million tons.

Zimbabwe’s minister of Lands, Agriculture and Rural Resettlement, Perence Shiri, and the permanent secretary in the department, John Basera, didn’t immediately respond to messages and phone calls seeking comment.

Tafadzwa Musarara, the chairperson of the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe, also didn’t respond to messages and calls.

Nick Mangwana, government’s main spokesperson, said: “Government weighs its position on GM mealies against the nutritional needs of the nation and proceeds guided by that assessment.”

However, he did not say whether the ban had been lifted.

The country’s mealie harvest is expected to plunge by more than half this season, leading to a probable supply deficit of between 800 000 tons and 1 million tons.

Weekly imports of white mealies, the variety used mainly for human consumption in the country, reached their highest in almost seven years, with 13 688 tons imported in the week ending on January 24.

On January 22, the Grain Millers Association of Zimbabwe said it had signed up for a monthly supply of 100 000 tons of mealies from South Africa. Until now, there has been little evidence of sufficient mealie imports coming into the country.

Jannie de Villiers, the CEO of Grain SA, said it was possible for genetic mealies to be separated and sent straight for processing, and that Zimbabwe had previously done this: “Historically, Zimbabwe only imports GM-free mealies, not because of food safety concerns, but due to seed safety concerns. Strategically, they do not want to be dependent on seed from multinational companies.”

The industry and commerce department has 65 registered millers that have signed up for its mealie subsidy programme, which government rolled out in December and which is meant to provide affordable mealie meal. – Bloomberg

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