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3-Food: Zambian scientists divided on GE food matter

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                                  PART I
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TITLE:  UNZALARU accuses US of being driven by business motivation over GMOs
SOURCE: The Post, Zambia, by Webster Malido
DATE:   August 1, 2002

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UNZALARU accuses US of being driven by business motivation over GMOs

THE United States is being driven by business motives in their wish to 
supply genetically modified (GM) maize to Zambia, charged University of 
Zambia Lecturers and Researchers Union (UNZALARU) secretary general Dr. 
Timothy Mwanza yesterday. Dr. Mwanza accused the US of trying to take 
advantage of the hunger situation in Southern Africa to maximise profits 
for its multinational companies producing the GM maize. "We cannot depend 
on a Republican US government, driven and backed more by business motives 
than philanthropy, to lecture to us that GM maize is safe for human 
consumption," Dr Mwanza said. "We need to be extra cautious because we know 
that here in Zambia, maize is the staple calorie source consumed in larger 
amounts than in the US."

He said as a union, they were worried because some experts had allegedly 
been bought-off to convince the government that GM maize was safe. Dr. 
Mwanza said while the union realises that government has a responsibility 
to feed its people in times of hunger, any desperation in handling the 
problem could result in a serious disaster. He said another fear was that 
the GM maize could contain a terminator gene, an innovation that protects 
the patents of companies producing GM maize. "If GM maize containing the 
terminator gene is planted and cross-pollinates with our organic maize, we 
risk destroying the engine of our food security that is driven by small 
scale farmers, that depend on storing seed from their own harvest," Dr 
Mwanza said. "Small scale farmers produce over 80 per cent of maize in 
Zambia, thus as a union we are against this veiled form of colonisation 
from the US."

Dr. Mwanza said the GM maize could also contaminate the baby-corn grown by 
Zambian commercial farmers which is exported to the European Union where 
there is a ban on GM foods. He said currently, there was no bio-safety 
legislation related to the importation and use of GMOs. "In the absence of 
bio-safety legislation, what will happen if things go seriously wrong?" he 
asked. Dr. Mwanza said it was also important to undertake a comprehensive 
environmental risk assessment by local scientists. He said a location 
specific for assessment was required before making any conclusions on the 
effects of GM foods on the environment.

Dr. Mwanza said because the government had endorsed the precautionary 
principle by assenting to the Rio Declaration (Agenda 21) and the 
Convention for Biological Diversity, it was important that they do not take 
any risks by accepting GM maize. "We demand that the government should 
exercise extreme caution and think twice before it acts," Dr Mwanza said. 
"If you want to test the depth of a river, do not put both legs into the 
water." He said it was important to follow the EU's approach of rejecting 
GM foods because, on the basis of current data, it is not possible to 
assess the dangers to humans and the environment.

The US has maintained that it will only provide GM maize to all hunger-
stricken countries in Southern Africa because that is what is in stock. 
United States Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator 
Andrew Natsios last week said as far as he was concerned, there was nothing 
wrong with eating genetically modified maize because American citizens have 
been feeding on it for five years without any negative health effects.

                                  PART II
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TITLE:  Safety of Gmos
SOURCE: The Post, Zambia, Dr. Luke Mumba
DATE:   July 29 & 31, 2002

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   "University of Zambia School of natural sciences Dean Dr Luke Mumba
    says, unlike chemical or nuclear contamination, gene pollution cannot
    be cleaned up. He adds, toxic effects of genetic mistakes, will be
    passed on to all future generations of species. 'Once released, it is
    virtually impossible to recall genetically engineered organisms back
    to the laboratory or the field. Genetically engineered products carry
    more risks than traditional foods,' points out Dr Mumba."
                                       The Times of Zambia, March 12, 2002  

Safety of Gmos

THE debate about biotechnology and the food derived from it, known as 
genetically modified food (GMF), has gained momentum. More so with the 
famine which is threatening the lives of more than 10 million people in sub-
region. The issue at the moment is whether or not the Zambian government 
should accept GM relief maize from the US. A number of people; scientists 
and non-scientists alike have rendered their voices to this immortive 

I would like to observe that recent sentiments issued in both the print and 
electronic media on the subject, have been sensational and to some extent 
alarming to the consumer.

Pronouncements on the subject have dampened the hopes of many Zambians 
(especially those in rural areas) who have been anxiously waiting to 
receive relief maize, which would rescue them from the impending 

All of us who consider ourselves to be experts in biotechnology must accept 
that we have not done enough to guide our policy makers on the subject. 
Each time we are afforded a forum we are invariably issuing contradictory 
statements on GM maize and biotechnology in general. Little wonder that our 
government is to date undecided on whether or not to accept maize aid from 
the US (The Post edition of 26th July).

It is with this background that I have been compelled to contribute on the 
subject, specifically to address three pertinent issues on the current 
debate. Firstly to advise on the question of the safety of genetically 
modified foods. Secondly, to deal with some common misperceptions that have 
clouded the debate and thirdly, to make specific suggestions on the way 
forward as regards GM maize which has been offered by donors.

It is important from the onset to distinguish between scientific 
methodology on the one hand and myths on the other. Science relies on 
deductive empirical evidence and is dynamic whereas myths are purely 
perceptions which cannot be substantiated with empirical data.

Myths have become popularly known as smoke screens and are largely being 
peddled by the anti-GMO activists. As regards food safety, the public need 
to know that all foods derived from biotechnology are thoroughly assessed 
to ensure that they are safe to eat.

They all undergo an extensive regulatory food safety review in the 
countries of origin prior to being made available for sale to the public. 
Countries around the world have developed National Biosafety laws and 
regulations that assure the safety of these foods. In Africa; Kenya, South 
Africa, Egypt, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Namibia and Cameroon have guidelines in 
place while several other countries including Zambia are in the process of 
formulating policies on the issue.

GM foods and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are evaluated according 
to processes endorsed by FAO and WHO. They are subject to the same food 
standards as non-biotech foods and must be substantially equivalent with 
regards to their composition, nutrition, toxicity, allergenicity, 
mutagenecity and digestibility before they can be released for consumption.

Professional expert reviews attest to the safety of biotech foods: the 
American Medical Association, American Dietetic Association, Food Advisory 
Council (UK) and the FAO have all endorsed biotechnology as a responsible 
tool. The influential British think-tank, the Nuffield Council of Biotechs, 
concluded that all GM crops so far released are safe for human consumption. 
Biotechnology companies are under obligation to ensure that all the 
genetically improved crops they produce comply with all national and 
international guidelines.

Their survival as companies is dependent on complying with regulations and 
consumer expectations. The debate in Zambia like in many other countries, 
has focused attention on the food safety and environmental concerns 
associated with biotechnology.

Some of these concerns are real, others imagined. Let us take food safety 
concerns first. So far there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that 
eating GM food will be bad for anyone's health. To be more specific there 
is no experimental data so far to prove that GM foods cause allergies, anti-
biotic resistance or suppression of immune systems in human bodies. These 
are but some of the common myths which I referred to earlier.

For instance, findings of a Royal Commission which was set up to 
investigate the validity of the claims that GM foods suppress the immune 
system concluded that 'the evidence by Dr Pusztai to indicate that rats had 
depressed immune system was not the result of standard immune response 
tests'. The report further states that 'within the scientific community 
there is general agreement that the results of Dr. Pusztai's experiment are 
inclusive insofar as there were flaws in the process, and the project was 

Extensive testing carried out by Chinese researchers, similar to that 
described by Drs. Pusztai has not replicated the results as claimed by the 
latter. It is therefore a misrepresentation of facts to suggest that GM 
foods depress immunity in humans as no such evidence has been documented. 
Millions of people around the world have been eating biotechnology crops 
(maize included) for a number of years and no ill health effects have been 
attributed to them. In a 6-year study of 65 000 GM Irish potatoes, no 
negative features caused by GM were found.

The reasons why we may be confident that GM foods are safe is that food 
safety depends on what a food contains, not how it was produced. 
Consequently, anti-nutritional elements, toxic micro-organisms, substances 
that cause allergies and other undesirable attributes are no more likely to 
be present in genetically modified than in conventional foods.

GM foods may even turn out to be better for people since, if resistance to 
pests in the original crop has been genetically induced, the food derived 
from it may contain fewer traces of pesticides. Biotechnology is no 
different in principle from breeding techniques that have been used for 

We can be assured of the long-term safety of food derived through 
biotechnology for several reasons. First, proteins available in 
biotechnology products have a history of safe use.

For instance, Bt proteins have been safely used as a 'harmless-to-people' 
insecticide for over 35 years. In medicine, the hormone known as insulin, 
which is given to diabetic patients, has been produced through this new 
technology for decades and has proved to be safe. Secondly, predictive 
tools are used, including animal feeding trails, to assess the long-term 
health and safety of these products. Now to the environmental concerns.

One of the most powerful myths surrounding genetic modification is that it 
is 'unnatural' because it allows genes to 'cross the species barrier'. 
Activists tune to this myth whenever they use emotive expressions such as 
'Frankenstein foods', 'Superweeds' or portray biotechnology as a plot 
perpetrated by mad scientists playing God.

The truth is that genes already move between species in nature. DNA from 
viruses is an example: It moves from grasses into the gut of insects, then 
into cultivated crops. Similarly, some of the DNA in humans (known as 
Mitochondrial DNA) is thought to originate from bacteria that entered the 
human genetic make up (genome) at an early stage of evolution.

In addition, conventional plant breeders have long moved genes between 
species in crops such as wheat and rice. Genetic modification is simply one 
more instrument enabling them to do so, albeit a powerful one since it 
broadens the genepool that can be accessed.

The designation of GM food as "unorganic" has its origins in the same 
concern not to transgress the species boundaries somehow (divinely?) 
ordained for human intervention. This designation is also mistaken, since 
nothing could be more organic than a gene.

The false dichotomy between organic foods and non-organic GM foods has been 
willed into being as a marketing ploy by companies and environmental groups 
with interests in 'organic' food and agriculture. In contrast, the concerns 
with 'gene escape' into the environment are real, if exaggerated. It is 
true that genes introduced to GM crop varieties could, as the crop is 
growing, be transferred to other organisms through pollination by insects, 
wind dispersal or other means. However, the chances of their actually doing 
so are low.

Transgenes are no more likely to be dislodged from a plant than are 
thousands of other genes. As a UK scientist has put it, 'the transgene is 
not a wobbly tooth in an otherwise sound row'. Firstly, it must be 
understood that cross-pollination is a basic biology; it is not specific to 
or created by GM crops. Plant breeders have developed practices and 
standards to account for outcrossing and to assure the purity of seeds 
planted and harvested. Secondly, it is predictable.

Outcrossing will only occur between closely related relatives growing in 
close proximity and flowering at the same time. The compatibility between 
plant species and geographic ranges of relatives are well understood; 
hence, the potential magnitude of outcrossing is predictable. Therefore, 
outcrossing by itself does not constitute a hazard. All biotech crops are 
thoroughly evaluated to assess the potential of a trait's outcrossing and 
conferring a selective advantage on a related species, or otherwise to 
cause harm to non-target organisms.

If safety cannot be demonstrated, the product is not approved. The 'great 
escape' - the one that everyone is most afraid of - is that of the gene for 
herbicide tolerance, which has been introduced into such crops as maize, 
cotton and soybean. In theory, this gene could, if it entered the local 
weed population, lead to the development of new, GM 'superweeds'.

I stress the word 'could', since no case of this has yet been reported, nor 
is it ever likely to be, however much press coverage is given to the 
monstrous triffid-like creatures conjured up by this technology's more 
imaginative detractors. Owing to the low probability that transgenes will 
escape, the traditional threat to ecosystems posed by the introduction of 
GM crops tolerant to herbicides appears marginal.

That does not mean we should ignore the risk, but simply that it should be 
kept in perspective. Another concern associated with herbicide-tolerant GM 
crops is that, by reducing weed infestation, they will lead to the decline 
of bees, birds and insects, which will be deprived of essential feed 
resources and breeding grounds. This is a real concern, especially in 
countries such as Zambia, where these forms of wildlife are still very much 

We have something precious here that we must not lose, as Europeans and 
North Americans have largely done. The evidence regarding the effects of 
herbicide tolerance packages on wildlife is mixed: some studies show that 
bird and insect populations can increase when these crops are grown, but 
others show the reverse. My belief is that, given this uncertainty, we need 
to view the introduction of herbicide-tolerant crops cautiously and to 
proceed slowly, taking into account the lessons learned elsewhere.

Being late adopters of this technology we have the opportunity not to 
repeat the mistakes made by others. Whether justified or not, concerns over 
herbicide tolerance should not be used as a blunt instrument with which to 
attack all biotechnology research and development, as some activists have 

Rather than a blanket declaration of Zambia as a GMO free zone, it is 
advisable for government to constitute a team of experts who will carry out 
risk assessment reviews on a product-by-product basis. This team will 
consider among other things the impact of the GM product(s) on human and 
animal health, environment and the socio-economic impact. Based on this 
team's recommendations, government would then make an informed decision as 
to whether or not to introduce a given GMO or its product.

The last but not least concern that I wish to address is that use of 
biotechnology in agriculture will lead to a loss of biodiversity and other 
negative effects on global ecology. In fact, one of the biggest threats to 
biodiversity and the ecology of our planet is the projected doubling of 
population expected over the next 50 years, and the attendant increase in 

This, of course, can be linked to continued destruction of tropical 
forests, grasslands and other terrain for purpose of food production. 
Future increase in plant productivity must be achieved without the 
continued loss of soil due to erosion and the loss of tropical forests, 
grasslands and other sources of biodiversity.

When properly assessed for safety and approved by the appropriate 
regulatory authorities, genetically modified crops can be a significant 
part of the answer to the conservation of our biodiversity. Despite recent 
Western European resistance, plant biotechnology has been well received and 
successfully adopted by millions of farmers and consumers around the world.

>From 5 million acres grown in 1996, the total planting were 120 million 
acres in 2001, making biotechnology the most successfully adopted 
agricultural innovation ever. Countries around the world are either growing 
biotechnology crops, testing them in the field trials, or conducting 
research on them with a view to introducing them.

That said, we are aware of the adverse reaction in parts of Europe. As with 
many new scientific innovations, biotechnology generates plenty of debate. 
This can be a healthy process where society has an opportunity to be 
informed and determine the value of a technology and introduce any needed 

Most people recognise that any technology has its attendant benefits and 
risks and that what is called for is impartial evaluation and sober 
discussion. Unfortunately, the biotechnology debate has been anything but 
that sensational media hype, playing on unfounded fears, has caused concern 
amongst consumers and eroded their confidence in their regulatory 

This, against a backdrop of the mad cow disease scandal and other European 
food scares, has generated a lot of anxiety about the safety of food. 
Further, environmental activist movements have launched an anti-biotech, 
anti-multinational and anti-intensive agriculture campaign in a very vocal 
and dramatic way.

In many instances, environmental realism has been cast aside in favour of 
environmental fanaticism. Some contend that trade tensions between Europe 
and the USA have an impact, while others mention cultural differences and 
attitudes to science and food. The lack of harmony between the various 
European regulatory authorities are also said to play a role. Current 
biotechnology crops mainly benefit farmers, who constitute only 2 to 3 per 
cent of their population.

Shortly, when foods that improve health and nutrition are common on the 
shelves (e.g. lower cholesterol, lower blood pressure, improve eyesight, 
etc.) European consumer resistance is expected to diminish. Whereas Europe 
has abundant food, with virtually everyone receiving an adequate diet, many 
in Africa suffer from hunger, malnutrition and poverty. Europe can afford 
the luxury of debate and delay of this technology whereas Africa cannot.

Europeans see no need to increase their food output, whereas Africans can 
see every reason to do so. In the light of the need for increased farming 
productivity, Africa must make up its own mind and speak for itself. 
Scientific data, regulatory frameworks and present benefits must be weighed 
against perceived risks and a balanced and pragmatic approach followed.

Let me at this point address myself to the crucial question as to whether 
or not the government of the Republic of Zambia should accept GM maize from 
the US. The genuine concern raised about importing GM maize is that our 
farmers (especially subsistence farmers) are likely to keep some of this 
seed for planting. If this happened there is risk that the GM maize will 
outcross with non-GM maize fields. The farmers may also mix their seed 
stock with GM seed. The two events may lead to contamination of local maize 
and loss of biodiversity.

Taking into account the gravity of the food crisis in the country, my 
personal views are that government should positively consider accepting GM 
maize but should put in place appropriate risk management measures. These 
measures are meant to reduce or eliminate the possibilities of GM seed from 
reaching out to farmers and the consumers. The two options in order of 
preference are:

The first option is that government should issue a directive to all millers 
that all GM maize be processed into maize meal as soon as it arrives into 
the country. This will entail strict monitoring to ensure that seed does 
not leave the maize depots. The second option would be to request the 
donors to give us GM maize meal as opposed to maize seed. However, this 
option has cost implications both on the donors and on the consumer, if 
some of the maize meal is to be sold.

Besides the food safety and environmental issues, biotechnology raises 
plenty of other issues such as the equitable sharing of the benefits 
arising from biodiversity, intellectual property rights and ownership of 
food production and distribution systems. I will be glad to address these 
issues in my future articles. Lest I am misunderstood, I would like to end 
by underscoring the fact that biotechnology is not a panacea for all 
Zambia's ills.

As a purely 'technological fix', it can do nothing to create the 
institutional and political conditions that are also necessary if 
agricultural productivity is to increase. Nevertheless, it is a powerful 
weapon in Zambia's war on poverty and hunger and can also do much to 
alleviate environmental degradation.

Far from being a luxury add-on to the conventional research scene, it is a 
vital new set of tools that offers us real hope for a better future.

                                  PART III
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TITLE:  How Safe Are Genetic Engineered Products?
SOURCE: The Times of Zambia (Ndola), by Bwalya Nondo
DATE:   March 12, 2002

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   "All of us who consider ourselves to be experts in biotechnology must
    accept that we have not done enough to guide our policy makers on the
    subject. Each time we are afforded a forum we are invariably issuing
    contradictory statements on GM maize and biotechnology in general.
    Little wonder that our government is to date undecided on whether or
    not to accept maize aid from the US."
                                  Dr. Luke Mumba, The Post; July 29, 2002

How Safe Are Genetic Engineered Products ?

IN his choice of fruits from the rack of a Lusaka super market, a long time 
friend instinctively reached out for a deep-yellowed arm-long variety of 
imported bananas. "These bananas are very inviting and irresistible. You 
can see from the quality that the local stuff is so inferior - little 
wonder local products are shunned," he said I reminded my friend that, 
there could be a tightly "locked secret" behind the gigantic size of the 
bananas he had "fallen" for. That the bananas could after all, not be of 
their own genetic-make up, but a product of scientific manipulation, with 
unknown consequences to consumers.

There are many "quality" agricultural produce that are perched on vegetable 
and fruit-racks of supermarkets and similar outlets. They are bought off 
without questioning why they are extra-big, or unique in any other way. 
This silence, discernibly due to information poverty, points to the urgency 
for an informed and sustained debate about the issue of genetically 
manipulating food products. Issues of concern should be those to do with 
effects if any, on human health and other things little thought about.

This is why, understanding of the technology around genetically modified 
organisms acronymed GMOs, is now becoming critical than ever before. The 
last decade or so has witnessed great leaps in the growth in biotechnology 
and trans-boundary movement of genetically modified organisms also known as 
living modified organisms (LMOs). Consumers and environmentalists in some 
parts of the world like South East Asia are concerned about the serious 
implications genetic engineering could have on their health, safety and 
physical environment.

Because of that, a need for regulation of GMOs has been felt and included 
in the convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) signed at the Rio 
conference in June 1992. The conference of parties to CBD finally agreed to 
the biosafety protocol in 2000. But this too has not completely alleyed 
fears which are increasingly mounting in the international community about 
the possible perils of GMOs.

According to the South Asia watch on trade, economy and environment 
(SAWTEE), commercial modifications of crops began around mid-1990 in the 
United States, Canada and Argentina with genetically modified corn, cotton 
and soya beans. The crops were genetically engineered to be tolerant to 
herbicides, or to resist pests and viruses.

But despite public concerns and doubts regarding the health and 
environmental safety of such crops, there has been no effort in many 
countries, especially in Africa for governments to make available, 
information regarding implications of GMOs. With poundering pangs of hunger 
stalking a great chunk of the African continent, people let alone 
governments, have not exhibited a fair bit of mistrust and skepticism about 
the food handouts received from 'donors.' What has mattered most, more than 
questioning the implications of GMOs, is relief food security for that time.

There has not been any trace of effort for effective risk assessment, GMOs 
pose, if any. Some countries are advocating biotechnology for the future, 
especially that the world's food basket, needs to be filled to go around . 
A tide of resistance against over-regulation of biotechnology is also 
bubbling to surface. The fear is that regulation will endanger 

Countries said to be opposing regulation of biotechnology include 
Argentina, Australia, Canada, Chile, Uruguay and United States of America. 
According to SAWTEE, the six countries 'christened' the Miami group, have 
had their position supported by the biotechnology industry organisation. 
'The countries opposing the Miami group are a diffused group of countries 
called the like minded. This group basically consists of the G-77 
countries,' reveals the SAWTEE report.

A Zambian scientist who has taken interest in biotechnology warns that 
although genetic engineering has demonstrated the power and the potential 
it offers to the human race, the hazards and dangers, that come along, 
should not be ignored.

University of Zambia School of natural sciences Dean Dr Luke Mumba says, 
unlike chemical or nuclear contamination, gene pollution cannot be cleaned 
up. He adds, toxic effects of genetic mistakes, will be passed on to all 
future generations of species. 'Once released, it is virtually impossible 
to recall genetically engineered organisms back to the laboratory or the 
field. Genetically engineered products carry more risks than traditional 
foods,' points out Dr Mumba.

Dr Mumba has concerns that, although some countries including Zambia are 
consumers of GMOs, they have no legislation on such products at all. The 
university don, quips, because of this omission, governments are guilty of 
not protecting their citizens. One of the requirements that would form part 
of the regulations would be to ensure that GMO products are labelled.

Some biotech companies assert that no labelling is required by falsely 
claiming that, there is no material difference between genetically modified 
foods and their traditional natural counterparts. 'Some governments are 
siding with biotech companies and ignoring the rights of consumers to know. 
Without labelling, the causes of new diseases will be very difficult to 
trace,' warns Dr Mumba.

The wonder of biotechnology is welcome.

It has potential among other things, to contribute to increased food 
production and therefore food security, now in serious deficits in many 
Third World countries including Zambia. But while recognising the potential 
of biotechnology, its demerits should not be ignored. The more reason why, 
adequate measures must be taken to minimise or eliminate any risks. 
Biosafety is the catchword. There is need for people to exercise their 
consumer rights and place uppermost in their minds the fact that, not 
everything they take, is wholly safe. Everyone must be aroused into 
igniting debate about genetic engineering - its implications, gains and 


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