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ISIS Report 09/11/05

Zambia Holding Firm to GM Ban Amid Aggressive GM Awareness Campaign

Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Zambian Minister of Science, Technology and Vocational Training, Mrs Judith Kapijimpanga, told the international conference on Genetic Engineering and Sustainable Agriculture in Lusaka, 3-6 October, that her country had taken a bold stance to reject GMO foods and conditions attached to them, “much to the annoyance of some donors.”

The Zambian government is committed to rejecting GM foods and aids to protect humans and animals and the environment. It is taking a precautionary stance on GM and ensuring sustainable agriculture.

She said the problem of food insecurity in Africa was a result of complex issues including droughts, floods, poor rural infrastructure, unreliable input distributions, subsidies, farmers' attitudes and agricultural policies. It required an integrated approach for sustainability.

The public and farmers have no access to reliable information and data, which is why the government is investing K900 million (~US$200 000) to set up a national institute of scientific research on GMO testing, to enable scientists to generate knowledge on biotechnology. She challenged the media to obtain and report accurate information on biotechnology and biosafety.

Hon Abel Chambeshi, Zambia's Minister for Communication, in closing the conference, reiterated that Zambia is committed to ban the release of GMOs and confine them to the laboratory. Safety and sustainable agriculture need to be given more attention at all levels, he said . Informed decisions need to be made in Zambia and within the region. Scientists should confine as much as possible their research in the laboratory, and only allow those approved as safe by regulation .

“Conservation farming and organic farming are proven to work,” Chambeshi said, “let us continue with them to eradicate hunger.”

Zambia shook the world when it took the lead in rejecting GM food aid in 2002 in the midst of projected famine (greatly exaggerated by the press and pro-GM lobby), opting instead to purchase food surpluses from within the country and the African region ( SiS 16 and SiS 17). The country recovered sufficiently to export maize surpluses to Angola in 2004.

Unfortunately, drought hit the sub-Saharan African countries including Zambia during the 2004/05 growing season, leaving many local communities short of food. So, once again, the pro-GM lobby has been taking the opportunity to promote GM crops for feeding the poor and hungry; and Zambia and other countries have been under tremendous pressure to accept GM food aid.

I was among the scientists, government and non-government representatives, and journalists invited to attend the international conference.

Not surprisingly, many participants rejected the idea that GM crops have a role to play in sustainable agriculture, especially for poor farmers; and considered it a waste of time to even discuss the GM option.

Dr Drinah Nyirenda, executive director of Programme Against Malnutrition, said there was need for technologies that optimised food production and utilisation. Any technology that fails will simply perpetuate poverty and hunger. “GM technology does not quality because it does not satisfy the issues raised on food availability, safety, environment and biodiversity sustainability on which the vulnerable small-scale farmer depends.”

Several promising approaches to sustainable agriculture were described at the conference (“Brother Paul's organic cotton & vegetable farm” and “Farmer who values his freedom above all”, this issue).

My message was simple. Once the hype, lies, half-truths and corruption are stripped away, there is no evidence GM crops have delivered any of the benefits promised by proponents, such as improved yields, reduced pesticides, or economic gains for small farmers; quite the opposite is the case. And there are large uncertainties over the safety of GM crops for health and the environment.

Most of all, farmers will lose control of seeds, for GM seeds are protected by patents; and apart from having to purchase seed every year, they must pay additional “technology fees”.

Furthermore, even if farmers choose not to grow GM crops, companies like Monsanto could and would still take them to court for patent infringement, should their fields become contaminated with GM seed or pollen. And organic farmers are not the only people under threat from GM contamination – a myth perpetrated by the pro-GM lobby – but farmers growing conventional crops as well.

Europe, a major food importer, has set GM contamination thresholds for conventional imports, above which they have to be labelled as GM. Countries around the world are due to follow suit.

US journalist Jeffrey Smith, whose book Seeds of Deception exposed the cover-ups and suppression of scientists and scientific evidence over the safety of GM food and feed, applauded Zambia's precautionary stance in rejecting GM food aid.

“We have neither the legal biosafety regulatory framework, nor the capacity to deal with GM imports, while large uncertainties remain over the safety of GM crops for health and the environment,” explained Dr. M. M. Lewanika, head of the Institute of Biotechnology in Zambia.

Two apologists for GM crops stood out, not so much in projecting a rose-tinted view of a biotech future under the now familiar refrain of “keeping all options open” even though “GM crops are not a panacea”, nor in denigrating and questioning organic agriculture at every opportunity; but in using an identical, crudely emotive tactic to try to morally blackmail their audience into accepting GM crops.

Dr Luke Mumba, chair of the Bio-safety Council of Zambia and researcher at the University of Zambia, included in his powerpoint presentation a photograph of an emaciated child crawling on barren ground with a vulture standing nearby, watching. The starving child, Mumba told us, was crawling towards food aid, with the vulture at its back. The child managed to reach the food aid and was saved, but the journalist who took the picture committed suicide.

Remarkably, Dr. Joseph M Wekundah, Mumba's counterpart from Kenya used the same picture in his talk and repeated exactly the same story.

Thanks to Jonathan Matthews of GMWatch ( GM Watch daily, 13 October 2005 ), I later learned that the photograph was taken in Sudan in 1994, long before GM food aid became an issue. No one knew if the child was saved. The photographer made no attempt to save the child, and committed suicide because he ran out of money.

Mumba chairs the Biotechnology Outreach Society of Zambia, launched 2003, and dedicated to an “aggressive awareness campaign” to change Zambia's “negative attitude towards GM crops” He has been invited to speak in conferences organised by industry-funded groups such as EuropaBio and CropGen in Europe and the UK.

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