NEWSREGIONAL
The Zambia Experiment - GM vs Organic

Author: Peter Henriot
Soujourners . (Source)

With 86 percent of the country below the poverty line, the southern African nation of Zambia seems an unlikely candidate to face down the United States - and corporate giant Monsanto - over genetically modified seeds.


When the government rejected the US offer in August, many commentators described themove as a bold step aimed at asserting the countrys national pride.

But with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimating that nearly three million peoplefaced starvation in Zambia, the rejection was seen by some Western observers as unreasonable- the UK Financial Times newspaper called it "absurd".

Now, following strong international pressure, a re-think is in the offing.

It is not as if there has been no public discussion about genetically modified organisms(GMOs). On 12 August the government organised a public debate in order to gauge thescientific evidence and other views. The debate highlighted deep divisions among Zambianscientists on the benefits of biotechnology.

The government voiced two concerns: initially, it highlighted the possibility of ill-health resulting from consumption of GM food. It later added an economic concern,saying GM crops may end up contaminating local non-GM crops and endanger Zambian agriculturalexports to Europe, which maintain strict guidelines on GMOs.

These discussions were held against a backdrop of little media coverage of GMOs. Accordingto one media content analysis, only four newspaper articles appeared on the issuethroughout 2000. Almost all covered biotechnology in a general way, with little localcontextualisation.

Focus group discussions organised by Panos in 2001, in conjunction with the ZambiaNational Farmers Union (ZNFU), showed that farmers too were divided on the issue.While most small-scale farmers wanted more information on the subject, commercialfarmers were opposed to GMOs, citing as their main reason the possibility of losingEuropean markets for their existing non-GM exports.

The European Union accounts for 53 per cent of Zambian exports - mostly made up ofprocessed and refined foods, primary agricultural commodities and floricultural, horticultural,animal and leather products.

Largely based on this trade-related rationale, ZNFU was among those organisationsthat welcomed the governments rejection of the US food consignment - others includethe Organic Farming Association and the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection.

The scientific case for rejection is led by Dr Mwananyanda Mbikusita-Lewanika of theNational Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research. He says there is compellingevidence that GMOs would have a negative impact on the local breeds such as millet,sorghum and traditional maize, with the possibility of causing an ecological problemthat would affect farming.

Dr Lewanika says that the government would do well to err on the side of caution byinvoking the precautionary principle clause of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety,arguing that his fears are borne out by a peer-reviewed study that showed GM plantsto have had adverse ecological effects on Mexican local maize varieties.

According to the precautionary principle, even if there is no clear scientific evidencethat a seed type is dangerous, the government can decide to take the precaution ofrefusing it, if there is likelihood that it might be harmful.

Quoting research projects from around the world focusing on potential ill effects,such as toxicity, resistance to antibiotics, allergies, loss of biodiversity, andresistance to pesticides, Dr Lewanika builds a case for rejecting GMOs.

Dr Lewanika lays down two basic preconditions for allowing GMOs into the country.Firstly, he says, there is a need to develop a national biosafety framework to regulatebiotechnology and GMOs. Second, the government must build the capacity to detect andmonitor GMO substances in foodstuffs coming into Zambia.

Alongside this dominant position has emerged a pro-GMO perspective. The proponentsare largely drawn from a pool of University of Zambia (UNZA) scientists, among whomare some who have been working with South Africas Muffy Koch, a senior microbiologistwho is serving on the South African governments working group developing GMO regulationsand drafting the countrys position paper for the International Biosafety Protocol.

Foremost among these are Dr Luke Mumba, dean of the School of Natural Sciences, andDr Fastone Goma, a medical doctor in private practice and research scientist in theSchool of Medicine.

Dr Mumba, quoting research sources from around the world, argues that "in the developedworld there is clear evidence that the use of GM crops has resulted in significantbenefits", including higher crop yields, reduced farm costs, increased profits andimprovements in the environment.

He also asserts that research focusing on "second generation" transgenic crops - thosemore to do with increased nutritional and/or industrial traits - has led to such beneficialproducts as iron- and vitamin-enriched rice, potatoes with higher starch content,edible vaccines in maize and potatoes and maize varieties able to grow in poor conditions.

In drought-prone Zambia, says Dr Mumba, hardy, genetically-modified maize would bea useful contribution to ensuring food security.

"…Given the importance people place on the food they eat," adds Dr Mumba, "policiesregarding GM crops will have to be based on an open and honest debate involving awide cross-section of society".

But Dr Mumba and Dr Goma have complained of having been left out of the planning committeefor the national debate held in August.

Both suggest that, if indeed it is true that GM maize might contaminate local cropvarieties, the GM maize grain should be milled so as to ensure that it is consumedby the starving masses without there being the possibility of storing any of it forthe next farming season. The position is shared by ZNFU.

Although most of the debate has been confined to scientific polemics, there has beensome ideological-nationalistic opposition to GMOs. Led largely by Women for Changesexecutive director, Emily Sikazwe, this argument suggests that the US government,pressured by huge seed transnational corporations, has an interest in establishingfuture markets on the African continent for its GM food exports. Sikazwe says theUS is not willing to offer non-GM maize in place of GM food aid.

What is clear from the debate so far, though, is the absence of the voices of themost affected people in rural areas. Bishop Peter Ndhlovu, the head of the Bible GospelChurch in Africa who has visited hunger-stricken villages, says: "The food crisisin rural Zambia is more grave than can be imagined from an urban perspective."

This echoes many concerns that the debate has been so urban-centred and elite-basedthat it has largely ignored the concerns and urgent needs of the rural poor.

The emphasis on scientific evidence as a basis for policy-making has rendered thepublic debate elitist. Those who are not schooled in science have largely been onthe sidelines, apart from some vocal civil society organisations.

While there is obviously a desire to learn more about the science of GMOs, there isincreasingly a political-economic movement that seeks to highlight the issue of unequalpower relations between rich and poor nations as well as the role of multinationalcorporations in perpetuating research and development that may seek to scientificallyjustify GM food.

It is also clear that there is a general lack of information about GMOs, especiallyamong rural populations, including small-scale farmers.

There are signs that the government has actively marginalised the voices of thosewho would support GMOs. This trend is also evident in the largely one-sided way themedia have covered the issue in Zambia, favouring those opposed to introducing GMtechnology into the country. The policy dilemma confronting Zambia over whether ornot to accept genetically-modified maize, offered as food aid by the United States,has thrown up urgent questions over the way - and the extent to which - debate overthe issue has been allowed in the country.

When the government rejected the US offer in August, many commentators described themove as a bold step aimed at asserting the countrys national pride.

But with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimating that nearly three million peoplefaced starvation in Zambia, the rejection was seen by some Western observers as unreasonable- the UK Financial Times newspaper called it "absurd".

Now, following strong international pressure, a re-think is in the offing.

It is not as if there has been no public discussion about genetically modified organisms(GMOs). On 12 August the government organised a public debate in order to gauge thescientific evidence and other views. The debate highlighted deep divisions among Zambianscientists on the benefits of biotechnology.

The government voiced two concerns: initially, it highlighted the possibility of ill-health resulting from consumption of GM food. It later added an economic concern,saying GM crops may end up contaminating local non-GM crops and endanger Zambian agriculturalexports to Europe, which maintain strict guidelines on GMOs.

These discussions were held against a backdrop of little media coverage of GMOs. Accordingto one media content analysis, only four newspaper articles appeared on the issuethroughout 2000. Almost all covered biotechnology in a general way, with little localcontextualisation.

Focus group discussions organised by Panos in 2001, in conjunction with the ZambiaNational Farmers Union (ZNFU), showed that farmers too were divided on the issue.While most small-scale farmers wanted more information on the subject, commercialfarmers were opposed to GMOs, citing as their main reason the possibility of losingEuropean markets for their existing non-GM exports.

The European Union accounts for 53 per cent of Zambian exports - mostly made up ofprocessed and refined foods, primary agricultural commodities and floricultural, horticultural,animal and leather products.

Largely based on this trade-related rationale, ZNFU was among those organisationsthat welcomed the governments rejection of the US food consignment - others includethe Organic Farming Association and the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection.

The scientific case for rejection is led by Dr Mwananyanda Mbikusita-Lewanika of theNational Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research. He says there is compellingevidence that GMOs would have a negative impact on the local breeds such as millet,sorghum and traditional maize, with the possibility of causing an ecological problemthat would affect farming.

Dr Lewanika says that the government would do well to err on the side of caution byinvoking the precautionary principle clause of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety,arguing that his fears are borne out by a peer-reviewed study that showed GM plantsto have had adverse ecological effects on Mexican local maize varieties.

According to the precautionary principle, even if there is no clear scientific evidencethat a seed type is dangerous, the government can decide to take the precaution ofrefusing it, if there is likelihood that it might be harmful.

Quoting research projects from around the world focusing on potential ill effects,such as toxicity, resistance to antibiotics, allergies, loss of biodiversity, andresistance to pesticides, Dr Lewanika builds a case for rejecting GMOs.

Dr Lewanika lays down two basic preconditions for allowing GMOs into the country.Firstly, he says, there is a need to develop a national biosafety framework to regulatebiotechnology and GMOs. Second, the government must build the capacity to detect andmonitor GMO substances in foodstuffs coming into Zambia.

Alongside this dominant position has emerged a pro-GMO perspective. The proponentsare largely drawn from a pool of University of Zambia (UNZA) scientists, among whomare some who have been working with South Africas Muffy Koch, a senior microbiologistwho is serving on the South African governments working group developing GMO regulationsand drafting the countrys position paper for the International Biosafety Protocol.

Foremost among these are Dr Luke Mumba, dean of the School of Natural Sciences, andDr Fastone Goma, a medical doctor in private practice and research scientist in theSchool of Medicine.

Dr Mumba, quoting research sources from around the world, argues that "in the developedworld there is clear evidence that the use of GM crops has resulted in significantbenefits", including higher crop yields, reduced farm costs, increased profits andimprovements in the environment.

He also asserts that research focusing on "second generation" transgenic crops - thosemore to do with increased nutritional and/or industrial traits - has led to such beneficialproducts as iron- and vitamin-enriched rice, potatoes with higher starch content,edible vaccines in maize and potatoes and maize varieties able to grow in poor conditions.

In drought-prone Zambia, says Dr Mumba, hardy, genetically-modified maize would bea useful contribution to ensuring food security.

"…Given the importance people place on the food they eat," adds Dr Mumba, "policiesregarding GM crops will have to be based on an open and honest debate involving awide cross-section of society".

But Dr Mumba and Dr Goma have complained of having been left out of the planning committeefor the national debate held in August.

Both suggest that, if indeed it is true that GM maize might contaminate local cropvarieties, the GM maize grain should be milled so as to ensure that it is consumedby the starving masses without there being the possibility of storing any of it forthe next farming season. The position is shared by ZNFU.

Although most of the debate has been confined to scientific polemics, there has beensome ideological-nationalistic opposition to GMOs. Led largely by Women for Changesexecutive director, Emily Sikazwe, this argument suggests that the US government,pressured by huge seed transnational corporations, has an interest in establishingfuture markets on the African continent for its GM food exports. Sikazwe says theUS is not willing to offer non-GM maize in place of GM food aid.

What is clear from the debate so far, though, is the absence of the voices of themost affected people in rural areas. Bishop Peter Ndhlovu, the head of the Bible GospelChurch in Africa who has visited hunger-stricken villages, says: "The food crisisin rural Zambia is more grave than can be imagined from an urban perspective."

This echoes many concerns that the debate has been so urban-centred and elite-basedthat it has largely ignored the concerns and urgent needs of the rural poor.

The emphasis on scientific evidence as a basis for policy-making has rendered thepublic debate elitist. Those who are not schooled in science have largely been onthe sidelines, apart from some vocal civil society organisations.

While there is obviously a desire to learn more about the science of GMOs, there isincreasingly a political-economic movement that seeks to highlight the issue of unequalpower relations between rich and poor nations as well as the role of multinationalcorporations in perpetuating research and development that may seek to scientificallyjustify GM food.

It is also clear that there is a general lack of information about GMOs, especiallyamong rural populations, including small-scale farmers.

There are signs that the government has actively marginalised the voices of thosewho would support GMOs. This trend is also evident in the largely one-sided way themedia have covered the issue in Zambia, favouring those opposed to introducing GMtechnology into the country. The policy dilemma confronting Zambia over whether ornot to accept genetically-modified maize, offered as food aid by the United States,has thrown up urgent questions over the way - and the extent to which - debate overthe issue has been allowed in the country.

When the government rejected the US offer in August, many commentators described themove as a bold step aimed at asserting the countrys national pride.

But with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimating that nearly three million peoplefaced starvation in Zambia, the rejection was seen by some Western observers as unreasonable- the UK Financial Times newspaper called it "absurd".

Now, following strong international pressure, a re-think is in the offing.

It is not as if there has been no public discussion about genetically modified organisms(GMOs). On 12 August the government organised a public debate in order to gauge thescientific evidence and other views. The debate highlighted deep divisions among Zambianscientists on the benefits of biotechnology.

The government voiced two concerns: initially, it highlighted the possibility of ill-health resulting from consumption of GM food. It later added an economic concern,saying GM crops may end up contaminating local non-GM crops and endanger Zambian agriculturalexports to Europe, which maintain strict guidelines on GMOs.

These discussions were held against a backdrop of little media coverage of GMOs. Accordingto one media content analysis, only four newspaper articles appeared on the issuethroughout 2000. Almost all covered biotechnology in a general way, with little localcontextualisation.

Focus group discussions organised by Panos in 2001, in conjunction with the ZambiaNational Farmers Union (ZNFU), showed that farmers too were divided on the issue.While most small-scale farmers wanted more information on the subject, commercialfarmers were opposed to GMOs, citing as their main reason the possibility of losingEuropean markets for their existing non-GM exports.

The European Union accounts for 53 per cent of Zambian exports - mostly made up ofprocessed and refined foods, primary agricultural commodities and floricultural, horticultural,animal and leather products.

Largely based on this trade-related rationale, ZNFU was among those organisationsthat welcomed the governments rejection of the US food consignment - others includethe Organic Farming Association and the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection.

The scientific case for rejection is led by Dr Mwananyanda Mbikusita-Lewanika of theNational Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research. He says there is compellingevidence that GMOs would have a negative impact on the local breeds such as millet,sorghum and traditional maize, with the possibility of causing an ecological problemthat would affect farming.

Dr Lewanika says that the government would do well to err on the side of caution byinvoking the precautionary principle clause of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety,arguing that his fears are borne out by a peer-reviewed study that showed GM plantsto have had adverse ecological effects on Mexican local maize varieties.

According to the precautionary principle, even if there is no clear scientific evidencethat a seed type is dangerous, the government can decide to take the precaution ofrefusing it, if there is likelihood that it might be harmful.

Quoting research projects from around the world focusing on potential ill effects,such as toxicity, resistance to antibiotics, allergies, loss of biodiversity, andresistance to pesticides, Dr Lewanika builds a case for rejecting GMOs.

Dr Lewanika lays down two basic preconditions for allowing GMOs into the country.Firstly, he says, there is a need to develop a national biosafety framework to regulatebiotechnology and GMOs. Second, the government must build the capacity to detect andmonitor GMO substances in foodstuffs coming into Zambia.

Alongside this dominant position has emerged a pro-GMO perspective. The proponentsare largely drawn from a pool of University of Zambia (UNZA) scientists, among whomare some who have been working with South Africas Muffy Koch, a senior microbiologistwho is serving on the South African governments working group developing GMO regulationsand drafting the countrys position paper for the International Biosafety Protocol.

Foremost among these are Dr Luke Mumba, dean of the School of Natural Sciences, andDr Fastone Goma, a medical doctor in private practice and research scientist in theSchool of Medicine.

Dr Mumba, quoting research sources from around the world, argues that "in the developedworld there is clear evidence that the use of GM crops has resulted in significantbenefits", including higher crop yields, reduced farm costs, increased profits andimprovements in the environment.

He also asserts that research focusing on "second generation" transgenic crops - thosemore to do with increased nutritional and/or industrial traits - has led to such beneficialproducts as iron- and vitamin-enriched rice, potatoes with higher starch content,edible vaccines in maize and potatoes and maize varieties able to grow in poor conditions.

In drought-prone Zambia, says Dr Mumba, hardy, genetically-modified maize would bea useful contribution to ensuring food security.

"…Given the importance people place on the food they eat," adds Dr Mumba, "policiesregarding GM crops will have to be based on an open and honest debate involving awide cross-section of society".

But Dr Mumba and Dr Goma have complained of having been left out of the planning committeefor the national debate held in August.

Both suggest that, if indeed it is true that GM maize might contaminate local cropvarieties, the GM maize grain should be milled so as to ensure that it is consumedby the starving masses without there being the possibility of storing any of it forthe next farming season. The position is shared by ZNFU.

Although most of the debate has been confined to scientific polemics, there has beensome ideological-nationalistic opposition to GMOs. Led largely by Women for Changesexecutive director, Emily Sikazwe, this argument suggests that the US government,pressured by huge seed transnational corporations, has an interest in establishingfuture markets on the African continent for its GM food exports. Sikazwe says theUS is not willing to offer non-GM maize in place of GM food aid.

What is clear from the debate so far, though, is the absence of the voices of themost affected people in rural areas. Bishop Peter Ndhlovu, the head of the Bible GospelChurch in Africa who has visited hunger-stricken villages, says: "The food crisisin rural Zambia is more grave than can be imagined from an urban perspective."

This echoes many concerns that the debate has been so urban-centred and elite-basedthat it has largely ignored the concerns and urgent needs of the rural poor.

The emphasis on scientific evidence as a basis for policy-making has rendered thepublic debate elitist. Those who are not schooled in science have largely been onthe sidelines, apart from some vocal civil society organisations.

While there is obviously a desire to learn more about the science of GMOs, there isincreasingly a political-economic movement that seeks to highlight the issue of unequalpower relations between rich and poor nations as well as the role of multinationalcorporations in perpetuating research and development that may seek to scientificallyjustify GM food.

It is also clear that there is a general lack of information about GMOs, especiallyamong rural populations, including small-scale farmers.

There are signs that the government has actively marginalised the voices of thosewho would support GMOs. This trend is also evident in the largely one-sided way themedia have covered the issue in Zambia, favouring those opposed to introducing GMtechnology into the country.


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