DOMBOSHAVA, ZIMBABWE — Food is scarce in this village 35 kilometers (about 22 miles) from Harare.
Weather changes, including harsher winters and shorter rainy seasons, have compromised the earth’s soil so that it cannot sustain crops as it once did. The problem is compounded by the fact that the government has since 2006 banned the import of all genetically modified produce and the use of seeds enhanced with genetically modified organisms, known as GMOs.
At Tariro Orphanage Trust, a children’s home in this village, Spiwe Mucharanji, the home mother, prepares meat along with salad, fruit and pasta on Sundays. These dishes were once daily menu items, but now, she says, the focus is less on healthy eating and more on just eating at all. Sometimes the 10 children who live there skip lunch to ration food.
“We are not picky when it comes to receiving GMO or non-GMO food,” Mucharanji says. “The situation is unbearable.”
Zimbabwe had a 51 percent decline in the production of maize — a staple food here — in the 2014-2015 growing season due to a drought, according to the World Food Programme. Rates of food insecurity have risen rapidly in recent years, with an increase from 1.5 million people (16 percent of the population) being food insecure, according to initial May 2015 estimates, to 2.8 million people (30 percent of the population) being food insecure, according to later estimates for that same point in time, according to the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee’s July 2016 report.
Still, the government maintains the ban. Officials say it protects Zimbabwe’s soil and environment.
“We are still non-GMO. We don’t use growth hormones at all. We are not even producing any GMO feeds in terms of maize, soya,” says Paddy Zhanda, deputy minister of agriculture (livestock). “For crops, we are using conventional seeds.”
The policy promotes a holistic farm management style, Zhanda says.
The Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers Forum (ZIMSOFF), made up of farmers in eight of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces, argues that the nation’s farmland, if properly managed, can produce enough food without introducing GMOs.
“We are conscious about our environment, and we are conscious about our farmers’ rights that we need to produce food organically,” says Nelson Mudzingwa, ZIMSOFF’s national coordinator. “Nature can regenerate, unless there is interference by a human being.”
He adds that Zimbabwe’s food production was once much more diverse than it is now. The country’s British colonial leaders, before Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980, promoted a myth that maize was the nation’s single staple food, which led people to forget about other key seeds, he says.
As a result, Mudzingwa says, the maize shortage is being mistaken for a total food shortage.
ZIMSOFF is lobbying Parliament to promote other small grain varieties including sorghum and cowpea.
Right now, biotech firms are focused on developing drought-resistant crops, says Jonathan Mufandaedza, CEO and registrar of the National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe, but those efforts are often falsely assumed to be linked to GMO production.
The National Biotechnology Authority regulates potentially harmful biotechnologies.
There’s a distinction between using biotechnology to modify living things such as crops and animals for purposes of enhancing productivity, and altering genes to create a product, he says. Zimbabwean biotechnologists are putting their energy into the former, he says.
But for many Zimbabweans, the issue isn’t worth discussing when they’re struggling to find any food at all.
“You walk into the shop and choose what to buy based on affordability,” says Robin Maenzanise, who is unemployed.
Most people don’t know the difference between GMO and non-GMO products, he says. They’re just struggling to feed their families.
Tatenda Kanengoni, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.