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3-Food: Recent articles on GE food aid (3): The Economist & PANOS

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                                  PART I
-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  GM crops in Africa - Better dead than GM-fed?
        Europe's greens are helping to keep Africans hungry
SOURCE: The Economist
DATE:   Sep 19, 2002

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GM crops in Africa
Better dead than GM-fed?
Europe's greens are helping to keep Africans hungry

SOUTHERN AFRICA'S food crisis is set to be the worst in a decade. Around 
14.5m people are dangerously hungry, and many have been reduced to eating 
wild leaves and pig food. One might, then, expect food aid to be welcomed. 
But Zambia is refusing to accept American donations because much of its 
corn and soya is genetically modified (GM). Zambia's president, Levy 
Mwanawasa, calls the stuff "poison” and refuses to import it, despite a 
warning from the UN World Food Programme, on September 16th, that relief 
supplies in his country could run out in two weeks.

Africans have two reasons for being wary of GM food aid: one silly, one 
slightly less so. The silly reason is the suggestion that GM foods are a 
danger to human health. Americans have been chomping GM maize and soyabeans 
for seven years, without detectable harm. And compared with the clear and 
immediate danger posed by malnutrition, the possibility of being poisoned 
by Frankencorn seems rather remote.

The more sensible reason for being wary of GM foods is that there are 
people who, not being in any danger of starvation, are precious about what 
they eat. They are called Europeans. And their tastes matter enormously in 
Africa because countries such as Zambia earn much of their hard currency 
from agricultural exports to rich countries, so any plausible threat to 
this trade has to be taken extremely seriously.

GM food aid is such a threat because if a Zambian peasant were to plant GM 
seeds from an aid shipment, these might pollinate (or, as Greenpeace puts 
it, "contaminate”) neighbouring fields. Before long, farmers might no 
longer be able to convince European buyers that their products were GM-
free—making them harder to sell.

While imports of GM food are not barred from Europe by law, consumers are 
so suspicious of them that supermarkets have constructed elaborate systems 
to certify that the food they sell is unmodified. Tesco, for example, a 
British supermarket, promises that there are no GM products in its own-
brand food. It audits its suppliers to make sure they comply, and has 
samples of foods tested for traces of DNA that would indicate that some of 
the ingredients have been genetically modified.

The laboratory tests for GM ingredients do not work by screening for 
genetic modification per se, but look for already known pieces of DNA or 
protein that reveal the presence of recognised GM foods. In other words, 
the tests look for GM foods that have been registered and approved by at 
least one country's food-safety authorities. New and unknown GM ingredients 
wouldn't show up, says Neil Griffiths, head of Law Laboratories in 
Birmingham, England, a firm involved in the testing business. Testing is 
also difficult in highly processed foods. Oil derived from GM soyabeans, 
for example, cannot be tested as it often contains no DNA or protein.

While the testing regime is flawed, it is stringent enough to present a 
serious problem for farmers in poor countries who want to export their 
crops. The fears of pampered northerners are thus creating an obstacle to 
the acceptance of food aid and the adoption of technology that might make 
the poor less poor.

Other hungry countries in the region, such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique, have 
decided, despite initial reluctance, to accept GM food aid. In Zimbabwe, 
the government decided to tackle the problem of "contamination” by milling 
aid corn before distributing it, so that it cannot be replanted. (There 
are, though, concerns that seeds could still be stolen before the 
government is able to mill them.) Zambia may yet follow its neighbours' 
example; local scientists have been sent to Europe, America and South 
Africa to study the pros and cons of GM, and will report back shortly.

Europe's anti-GM hysteria, however, will continue to deter farmers in poor 
countries (the majority of the population) from planting crops which tend 
to have higher yields and require fewer applications of costly and 
dangerous chemical pesticides. Hardly a green outcome.

                                  PART II
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TITLE:  Can Beggars Be Choosers?
SOURCE: PANOS Southern Africa, by Fackson Banda
DATE:   October 2002

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Can Beggars Be Choosers?

LUSAKA (PANOS) – The policy dilemma confronting Zambia over whether or not 
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 over the issue has been allowed in the country.

When the government rejected the US offer in August, many commentators 
described the move as a bold step aimed at asserting the country’s national 

But with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimating that nearly three 
million people faced 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 the scientific evidence and other views. The 
debate highlighted deep divisions among Zambian scientists 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 agricultural exports to Europe, which 
maintain strict guidelines on GMOs.

These discussions were held against a backdrop of little media coverage of 
GMOs. According to one media content analysis, only four newspaper articles 
appeared on the issue throughout 2000. Almost all covered biotechnology in 
a general way, with little local contextualisation.

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

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

Largely based on this trade-related rationale, ZNFU was among those 
organisations that welcomed the government’s rejection of the US food 
consignment – others include the Organic Farming Association and the Jesuit 
Centre for Theological Reflection.

The scientific case for rejection is led by Dr Mwananyanda Mbikusita-
Lewanika of the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research. 
He says there is compelling evidence 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 problem that would affect farming.

Dr Lewanika says that the government would do well to err on the side of 
caution by invoking 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 plants to have had adverse ecological effects 
on Mexican local maize varieties.

According to the precautionary principle, even if there is no clear 
scientific evidence that a seed type is dangerous, the government can 
decide to take the precaution of refusing 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, and resistance 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 regulate biotechnology and GMOs. Second, the government must 
build the capacity to detect and monitor GMO substances in foodstuffs 
coming into Zambia.

Alongside this dominant position has emerged a pro-GMO perspective. The 
proponents are largely drawn from a pool of University of Zambia (UNZA) 
scientists, among whom are some who have been working with South Africa’s 
Muffy Koch, a senior microbiologist who is serving on the South African 
government’s working group developing GMO regulations and drafting the 
country’s position paper for the International Biosafety Protocol.

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

Dr Mumba, quoting research sources from around the world, argues that "in 
the developed world there is clear evidence that the use of GM crops has 
resulted in significant benefits”, including higher crop yields, reduced 
farm costs, increased profits and improvements in the environment.

He also asserts that research focusing on "second generation” transgenic 
crops – those more to do with increased nutritional and/or industrial 
traits – has led to such beneficial products 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 be a useful contribution to ensuring food security.

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

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

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

Although most of the debate has been confined to scientific polemics, there 
has been some ideological-nationalistic opposition to GMOs. Led largely by 
Women for Change’s executive director, Emily Sikazwe, this argument 
suggests that the US government, pressured by huge seed transnational 
corporations, has an interest in establishing future markets on the African 
continent for its GM food exports. Sikazwe says the US 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 the most affected people in rural areas. Bishop Peter Ndhlovu, the head 
of the Bible Gospel Church in Africa who has visited hunger-stricken 
villages, says: "The food crisis in 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-based that 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 the ‘public debate’ elitist. Those who are not schooled in science 
have largely been on the sidelines, apart from some vocal civil society 

While there is obviously a desire to learn more about the ‘science’ of 
GMOs, there is increasingly a political-economic movement that seeks to 
highlight the issue of unequal power relations between rich and poor 
nations as well as the role of multinational corporations in perpetuating 
research and development that may seek to ‘scientifically’ justify GM food.

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

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

* Fackson Banda is the director of Panos Southern Africa


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