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Finance & Innovation

A New Genetically-Modified Maize Is Helping Feed Zimbabwe — But Not Without Controversy

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One of the most dire crises facing the world today is extreme hunger.

In Africa, a series of severe droughts in recent years has left nations teetering on the brink of famine, struggling to feed their populations.

For scientists, government officials, and humanitarian workers struggling to feed the world’s neediest populations, the invention of a drought-resistant, heat-resistant, nutritionally-fortified maize crop could be a major breakthrough to helping farmers feed their communities.

But it could also carry with it its own risks to those farmers and to the African continent.

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The maize variety known as ZS242 was created by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center with the help of governments — including Zimbabwe’s and the United States via its foreign aid — as well as the United Nations and private seed companies like Monsanto.

It’s a genetically-modified type of maize that was created to have high yields and rapid grow time, which offers it the potential of feeding more Africans more quickly. Though maize is a staple food across Africa, the hot and dry climate makes growing traditional varieties of the crop difficult.

First introduced into Zimbabwe in 2015, the provitamin ZS242 maize variety has already gained popularity among local farmers for its extremely high yields and its rapid grow time. The plant has been so successful that Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Agriculture claims 2.8 million tons have already been harvested in 2017, well above the yearly requirement of 1.8 million tons.

A hearty version of a staple crop could be revolutionary on a continent where drought and climate change can make sustenance farming a difficult affair.

Global Citizen campaigns on the Global Goals for Sustainable Development, including goals number two (zero hunger) and three (good health and well being). Organizations like the CIMMYT are at the forefront of finding innovative solutions to these complex global health issues.

Global Citizen also advocates for maintaining US foreign aid, which President Donald Trump’s administration has proposed slashing by more than 30%, and has urged President Trump to  #StopTheCuts. The CIMMYT is partially funded by US aid; without funding, their ability to work toward a hunger and malnutrition free Africa would be in jeopardy.

The United Nations World Food Programme reported that 4.1 million people in Zimbabwe experienced food-insecurity during the peak of a massive drought this year. South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia are also facing similar crises.

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Additionally, the CIMMYT reports that one in five children in the Zimbabwe suffers from vitamin-A deficiency, a condition that can lead to lower IQ, growth stunting, and blindness.

Hunger and malnutrition often go hand in hand, and the maize project represents a potential solution to both problems.

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However, some are cautious about hailing genetically modified crops as the savior of African agriculture.

Concerns about the long-term effects of such crops on the farming landscape complicate the obvious utility of the plants. For example, GM crops often mingle with organic crop varieties in harmful ways. The practice of monocropping, or raising one crop only on a given plot of land, has also proven to be damaging to soil over extended periods of time.

Additionally, the motives of large agricultural companies involved in the GM farming of Africa are far from clear-cut aid. Monsanto, which partnered with the CIMMYT’s project, chose to provide seeds to farmers free of royalty charges initially, but offered no guarantee that this practice would always be the case.

Read More: Since 2015, USAID Has Helped Provide Clean Water Access to 7 Million People. Now, That Aid Is Being Threatened

Mark Edge, director of collaborations for developing countries at Monsanto, told BusinessGreen in a 2016 interview that donation of drought-resistant seeds were just as much about developing a market for their products as solving humanitarian issues.

"On these two particular ones for this particular project in Africa, we're making it royalty-free because we want to see the market develop," Edge said. "There's the whole food security issues, social responsibilities, but also building the market. There's a mutual benefit for us if the seed industry becomes more robust and vigorous and profitable in Africa."

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The maize project in Zimbabwe could soon be expanded to other areas of the continent, according to Voice of America. That is the hope of Cosmos Magorogosho, the CIMMYT’s program director in southern Africa. Magorogosho believes the crop’s success in Zimbabwe is just the beginning.

"Since its inception, this program has been able to produce more than 50,000 tons of maize seed, not just for Zimbabwe, but for Southern Africa, Eastern Africa and West Africa," Magorogosho told VOA. "[C]ommunities are benefiting from increased yields."

The prospect of a simple solution to the complex problem of hunger remains attractive. As more countries in Africa begin to experiment with GM crops, the debate will continue over the efficacy of such practices in the long-term fight to eradicate hunger across the continent.