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3-Food: As drought takes hold, Zambia's door stays shut to GM



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TITLE:  As drought takes hold, Zambia's door stays shut to GM
SOURCE: SciDev.Net, UK, by Brenda Zulu
       
http://www.scidev.net/gateways/index.cfm?fuseaction=readitem&rgwid=4&item=Features&itemid=395&language=1
DATE:   21 Apr 2005

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As drought takes hold, Zambia's door stays shut to GM

Hunger is a perennial challenge facing African countries, and Zambia is no
exception. But while some nations are prepared to boost supplies by
importing food containing genetically modified (GM) organisms, Zambia is
sticking to its guns and saying no.

Once an exporter of food, Zambia is in the grip of its third severe drought
since 2000. The lack of rain is threatening Zambia's food security - it
needs at least 200,000 tonnes of maize to avert a crisis - which has led
the United States to increase pressure on the country to legalise imports
of GM food.

But Zambia's agriculture minister Mundia Sikatana says the government is
staying firm on plans to develop legislation on GM products, and is
reaffirming its ban on their entry into the country until it is satisfied
they pose no threat to health or the environment.

In a 15 March interview to mark World Consumer Rights Day, Sikatana said
Zambia would soon set up facilities for identifying GM products at all
points of entry to the country to enable it to enforce the ban.

Zambia's position on GM food was made clear in 2002, when president Levy
Mwanawasa rejected food aid from the United States during that year's
drought and subsequent food crisis because the aid could not be confirmed
to be GM free.

In August 2002, the Zambian government banned imports, sale and use of GM
products, citing health, environmental and trade concerns. The decision was
based on the recommendations of a team of Zambian scientists and economists
that had conducted a fact-finding mission to South Africa, Europe and the
United States.

In March 2005, the government produced draft biosafety legislation that, if
approved by the cabinet, will be presented to parliament for debate.

The government should not drag its feet in getting the law approved by
parliament, says Muyunda Ililonga, executive secretary of the Zambia
Consumers Association (ZACA). The association is worried that GM-derived
products could enter Zambia illegally because some countries in southern
Africa accept or, in the case of South Africa, grow GM crops.

Ililonga says Zambia needs to be able to check whether food coming in is GM
or not. "We still feel that the government is not moving fast enough," he
adds.

ZACA was among the civil society groups that helped launch the idea of a
biosafety law. To draft the law, the government consulted with stakeholders
including farmers, women's groups, church leaders, politicians, scientists
and non-governmental organisations.

Ililonga feels that this diversity was representative enough for the
government to make a decision that reflects public opinion.

But not all Zambians oppose GM crops. Supporters say they will bring relief
to hungry Africans by improving crop yields and nutrition. They assert that
citizens of rich countries, for whom the potential benefits of GM are less
relevant, have exaggerated the risks posed by the technology.

Among the proponents is the Biotechnology Outreach Society of Zambia, set up
in 2003 to promote acceptance of GM technology.

The society points to the 2003 findings of a team of Southern African
scientists that the member nations of the Southern African Development
Community had asked to investigate the potential effects of planting and
eating GM crops.

The researchers concluded that GM crops pose no immediate risk to humans and
animals, and advised the southern African nations to embrace the technology
because of its potential to increase agricultural yields.

However, they also warned that potential environmental risks remain a
challenge.

As a result, the team recommended that GM technologies be evaluated in
African environments, and called for African nations to develop their own
capacity to regulate and test GM products.

Another report, commissioned by the Jesuit Centre for Theological
Reflections and the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre, says, however,
that GM crops would bring negligible benefits to Zambian farmers and could
threaten the sustainability of agriculture in the country.

"GM crops are likely to bring many problems, including serious negative
effects on the development of small-scale farming in Zambia - the basis for
the country's food security system," says agricultural scientist Bernadette
Lubozya, the report's author.

Lubozya's report concluded that to ensure sustainable agriculture in Zambia,
rather than adopting GM crops, the country should encourage farmers to rely
more on internal inputs within the farm and its immediate surroundings.

Agriculture minister Sikatana agrees, pointing out that for Zambian farmers
the most pressing problem is the lack of mechanised agriculture, with many
farmers still using hoes to till their land.

He says the government plans to create training centres in every district
that will lease agricultural equipment to farmers.

"We shall plant and cultivate for them and recover the costs during the
harvest," he explains.

Lubozya's report also warned that adopting GM technology could affect
European markets for Zambian flowers, coffee, fruit, vegetables and
tobacco.

Although the European Union recently relaxed its ban on GM products,
authorising 26 for planting and sale, Sikatana insists that "if Zambia
allows GM crops, Europe will not buy from us any more".

In the face of the current drought the government is encouraging farmers to
grow alternatives to the staple maize, such as winter maize (which grows
well in dry conditions) and cassava, and to irrigate their fields with
water from wetlands.

Sikatana says that this will allow production to be sustained but that even
optimistic forecasts suggest Zambia will only produce enough for local
consumption.

As Zambia's drought continues and its fields dry up, so does its list of
options for ensuring food security. But one thing is certain - the
government is keeping the door to GM crops firmly closed.



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