3-Food: Zambian scientist reports on GE food information visits to the US and EU
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TITLE: Will Their Protests Leave Her Hungry?
SOURCE: The Daily Telegraph
sent by AgBioView, USA
DATE: Nov 20, 2002
------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------
" 'The [UK] Department for International Development said: 'You just
accept it because you have no choice'. As a human being, I felt that
these people actually didn't care. You are being told you are put in
a position where it's given to you - so just accept it.' "
Dr Mwananyanda Lewanika
National Institute for Science and Technology, Zambia
Will Their Protests Leave Her Hungry?
'European objections to GM food could have a devastating effect on the
poorest countries of Africa'
When Britain launched its public debate last week on genetically modified
crops, the talk was of government indifference to the outcome. But the
British response to GM has an importance that extends far beyond its
shores. While this country's full-bellied citizens discuss the niceties of
outcrossing and allergenicity, Africans are listening from countries where
the issues are raw and overshadowed by starvation. Only last month one
African country rejected GM food aid after consultations in Europe.
Britain's - and Europe's - attitudes to GM are profoundly shaping the
African response. Last week Gordon Conway, president of the development
charity the Rockefeller Foundation, said that a European ban on GM crops
would have a devastating effect on African agriculture.
The repercussions of the British debate can be seen most acutely in Zambia,
where three million people face the possibility of starvation because of
drought. Some time after international relief maize began to arrive, the
Zambian government discovered that it was partly GM and that accepting it
had major environmental and perhaps health implications. Lacking the
laboratories and protocols, Zambia turned to Europe for guidance and has
now rejected 63,000 tonnes of American maize. It even turned down milled GM
maize, free from seeds that farmers could plant. "We believe the government
of Zambia has disregarded the scientific evidence and is rejecting the
advice that accepting this safe maize to feed its hungry people would help
avert human catastrophe," the United States complained. But Zambia looks to
Europe, not to America.
Britain's pressure groups have had a hotline to the Zambian scientists
entrusted with advising their government about GM relief maize. The
Zambians have instinctively accepted their suspicion of the motives of the
United States in flooding Africa with GM food - and they have been
particularly moved by the health fears that erupted in Britain in 1999.
In September, Zambia's scientists sped around Britain, Brussels, Holland,
Norway, America and South Africa on a quest to understand GM issues. One of
the seven-member team told me: "I did see things differently from the way I
saw them before I left: I got more scared."
Dr Mwananyanda Lewanika is a biochemist at Zambia's National Institute for
Science and Technology, holds two degrees from American universities and
has specialised in biosafety for five years. He explained that his team
rejected the maize largely because of health concerns raised in Europe. His
first concern is gene transfer - the idea that the foreign genes in GM
plants could, while in the gut, transfer into the cells of the body or into
bacteria in the gut. If the genes coded for antibiotic resistance, as they
sometimes do, bacteria that picked them up could then rampage unchecked
through human populations. Zambia's science minister, Abel Chambeshi, said
a fortnight ago that donors are refusing to tell Zambia what kind of GM
maize they have given.
Dr Lewanika also fears unintended effects resulting from gene insertion -
that the functions of genes are not fully understood, and they may produce
unpredicted substances that could be poisonous or allergenic.
How could Zambia's scientists have attached such weight to health risks
that are mostly irrelevant to those who face starvation? During their three
days in Britain, as well as meeting representatives from five government
bodies, the team met a host of NGOs, many of whom pressed the health
issues. According to the Zambia Daily Mail, Farming and Livestock Concern
UK said that the virus used to create most GM varieties "could form a
retrovirus that could produce symptoms similar to HIV", a claim that will
raise eyebrows among biologists. Genetic Food Alert raised the "unknown and
unassessed implications of providing large quantities of food containing
resistance genes to a large population in Zambia". The scientists
themselves report that they met a host of groups, such as Econexas, the
Natural Law Party and the Third World Network, as well as hearing the
arguments of more well known organisations, such as Greenpeace, Friends of
the Earth and the Soil Association.
These meetings convinced them that the health risks of GM are of even
greater concern to Africans than to the First World. "The people of Zambia
are in poor health," says Dr Lewanika. "Many are immune-compromised. If the
health concerns are true, they are more likely to affect those in Zambia."
The fact that Zambians eat untreated maize, while Americans eat their GM
maize in a highly processed form, was also important to the scientists. "In
Zambia corn is eaten as nshima [a porridge] for breakfast, lunch and
supper. In America they eat it as cornflakes and tortilla chips, while corn
on the cob is not genetically modified." Foreign proteins in the maize
would perish en route to becoming cornflakes, he argues, but might survive
the mild simmering that turns maize flour into porridge.
Kainyua M'bijjewe, Monsanto's spokesman in Africa, has accused groups such
as Greenpeace of perpetuating starvation by helping to persuade African
governments to reject GM foods. But Dr Lewanika dismisses such claims,
saying that he is capable of assessing the soundness of research for
Instead, he says, it was the groups who thought Zambia should accept the GM
maize that failed to provide scientific arguments. They came across as
patronising and unsympathetic to the anguish that has characterised
Zambia's GM trouble.
Prof David King, Britain's chief scientist, appeared to Dr Lewanika to be
dismissive. "He said that Zambia doesn't have a choice [and must accept GM
maize]. But he also said that he does have a choice so he would not eat it
"The Department for International Development said: 'You just accept it
because you have no choice'. As a human being, I felt that these people
actually didn't care. You are being told you are put in a position where
it's given to you - so just accept it."
The pattern was repeated in the United States. "We met no one who could put
scientific arguments for accepting GM. We were just told, first, that they
are tested and, second, that they are eaten in the States. But when we went
to the National Academy of Sciences and obtained a copy of their report
assessing the regulatory mechanism in the US it says it falls far short of
what should be done."
The five other famine-threatened countries in southern Africa have accepted
GM relief maize - four of them provided it is milled before distribution, a
process that is expensive and time-consuming but eliminates environmental
risks. But milling protects them only from an immediate invasion of GM. Mr
Conway's argument is that Africa's agricultural future depends on Europe
becoming more receptive to GM crops. If Europe rejects GM, then African
countries that accept it could lose their export markets.
"If in effect the EU says we will not buy any food from any country that
happens to have GM crops growing in it, that will have enormous effect on
African agriculture," he said.
Greenpeace has told Zambia that its burgeoning business selling organic
produce to Europe could collapse if it accepts GM. The EU has denied this
but Zambia decided to believe the NGOs. Peter Masunu, spokesman for the
Zambian Department of Agriculture, said: "The Zambian government does not
have the capacity to detect whether food is genetically modified, we have
not yet ratified the Cartagena agreement [covering the transport and use of
modified organisms] and we have no legislation in place on biotechnology
Whether Zambia will weather its immediate storm, and feed its hungry
without the help of GM maize, is debatable - no one can even agree how much
non-GM maize is available. In the long term, Mr Conway argues, Africa's
fate lies in European minds, shaped by debates such as that launched in
"The developing countries, especially African, desperately need new crop
variety, new medicines and vaccines. GM technology in Africa is not a
silver bullet. But it is going to be essential if we are to produce crops
resistant to pests, disease and weeds, tolerant of drought and of high
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