While research shows that crop yields from rain-fed agriculture could fall by up to 50% by 2020, government is still adamant that genetically modified crops remain banned in Swaziland despite scientific evidence that GMO technology could potentially enhance agricultural production.

Earlier this year, Minister of Agriculture Moses Vilakati reaffirmed government’s stance that the importation of genetically modified crops into the kingdom remains banned, and that there currently is no legal instrument providing for the production of genetically modified crops in Swaziland.

This statement was in response to a number of applications that have been presented by some entities before the Swaziland Environmental Authority (SEA) for evaluation in hopes of being granted permission to either grow genetically modified cotton or import GMO maize.

Last year, Members of Parliament from the Portfolio Committees on Agriculture and Tourism went on a fact-finding mission in India and South Africa to find out more on the pros and cons of growing GMO cotton. On their return, they were of the view that Swaziland could benefit immensely from the adoption of GMO technology, and that it would be prudent for Parliament to enact the necessary legislation. To date, nothing has happened in this regard.

This is despite the fact that food insecurity continues to be relatively high and agricultural production is alarmingly low, particularly following the 2015/16 drought that cost the economy of Swaziland about E3.843 billion, as revealed by a study conducted by the Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (SEPARC).

Another SEPARC study found that during the 2015/16 drought, the food insecure population increased by 99% from 320,973 people in July 2015 to 638,251 people in May 2016.

In 2007, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that approximately 41% of the population (410,000 to 610,000 people) required food assistance through the regular programmes of the Swaziland Government and the World Food Programme (WFP).

In this world of social media, “science doubt has become a pop-culture meme,” says Joel Achenbach, a science reporter at The Post. “Empowered by their own sources of information and their own interpretations of research, doubters have declared war on the consensus of experts.”

This is a sentiment shared by Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics and Agri-business at the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food & Life Sciences at the University of Arkansas in the United States, Professor Lawton Lanier Nalley.

“When did people stop believing scientists and instead believe Facebook?” he wondered during a public lecture he gave at the University of Swaziland (UNISWA) Luyengo campus on Tuesday. The lecture was hosted by SEPARC in partnership with the UNISWA Research Centre.

The professor noted that GMOs are a tool which producers can use to increase their yields, to reduce their input costs, and thus potentially increase profits, while also reducing the environmental impact of agricultural production. He said the National Academy of Science, Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), World Health Organisation (WHO), and others have pronounced that GMOs are safe to eat.

“I cannot disprove that, and it does not mean there are no longer people that still think they are not safe, but science says GMOs are safe. What they are not, is a magic bullet. Yes, they are associated with high upfront costs and even if they do increase yields, if consumers will not accept them there is no market and profits could decrease, which could lead to input resistance” he said.

Professor Nalley noted that South Africa has realised a net cumulative income gain of approximately E780.71 million ($65.6 million) since 2003 when that country introduced the commercial growing of herbicide tolerant maize. He said this amount does not take into consideration any labour cost saving that may arise from the reduced need for hand weeding.

On the other hand, he said genetically modified maize, which has been grown commercially in South Africa since 2000, has resulted in yield gains of 5% and 32% between 2000 and 2004, and 10.6% in 2008 to 2009, with 90% of the country’s total maize crop being planted to GM varieties in 2015.

The professor acknowledged that there are also issues on using GMO technology from a producer’s point of view. For instance, he said if a poor producer cannot afford the GM technology, he/she is made no better off, but neither are they left worse off. Also, often times farmers have to buy additional inputs for a specific herbicide, which can vary in price, and then there is the issue of segregation, he added.

“It appears we just proved that GM crops (on average) have positive returns to investment and in the case of maize, can increase yields. Logic would then say that GM crops could increase farmer livelihoods in terms of higher profits, reduce food insecurity in terms of higher yields which in turn means lower prices. However, this would be true if the world was a vacuum and consumer preference did not exist,” he added.

Noteworthy is that a report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, says there is no substantiated evidence that GMO crops have sickened people or harmed the environment, but it also cautions that such crops are relatively new and that it is premature to make broad generalisations, positive or negative, about their safety.