A glimpse of the politics of grain imports in times of famine, by Sue Jean Taylor

During the global food price crisis of 2008, Zimbabwe was noted in refusing maize shipments from South Africa as they were GMO maize. Most of South Africa’s commercial maize production is now GMO. However, in 2020, the Zimbabwean government has backed down on this stance.  They have been forced to purchase maize from South Africa to avert what could be its worst famine. Zimbabwe is battling its worst drought in 40 years and is in the midst of an economic collapse. An estimated 5.5 million of Zimbabwe’s just over 14 million people are now food insecure and require emergency cereal (maize grain) assistance . The  Zimbabwean government’s temporary measures to try to feed the country’s people included the removal of import permits for maize grain, maize meal, and wheat flour, with wheat flour to be placed on the Open General Import License list. At this time, there are also temporary changes to the way imports into Zimbabwe are controlled, and this could have long term positive outcomes is continued.

No doubt policy makers, customs officials and agricultural economists will be watching these developments with interest, as blockages of all types of goods at SADC’s borders remains a constraint to regional free trade.

While genetically modified maize imports from South Africa are being allowed, the incoming maize will be  carefully quarantined and milled into maize meal, the national starch staple of Zimbabwe, and will not be planted to avoid contaminating local maize land-races. 

Harvest of local maize (non-GMO) in Zimbabwe. Image sourced from Internet.

Historically, Zimbabwe’s policy with regard to GMO crops is to only import genetically modified-free corn, not because of food safety concerns, but seed safety concerns. Strategically, they do not want to be dependent on seed from multinational companies.


Lloyd Phillips (2019). ‘Opportunity for SA to increase grain exports to Zimbabwe’November 26, 2019.  https://www.farmersweekly.co.za/agri-news/africa/opportunity-for-sa-to-increase-grain-exports-to-zimbabwe/

Ray Ndlovu / Bloomberg (2020). January 31, 2020. Zimbabwe quietly lifts ban on genetically modified corn imports from South Africa in bid to avert famine. Sourced https://time.com/5775168/zimbabwe-genetically-modified-corn-famine/

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