Science in Society Archive

African Consumer Leaders Support Zambia

African consumer leaders came out in support Zambia’s rejection of GM food after a stormy 3-day conference in Lusaka. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports.

Touchdown in Lusaka

The countryside looked pleasantly green from recent rains, but that was deceptive. "This is supposed to be the rainy season, but it has rained very little," the taxi-driver told us. The government is already preparing for the worst: drought spreading to other regions of the country.

"The southern and western provinces are worst hit," said Myunda Ililonga, Chief Executive Officer of Zambia Consumer Association. "There is normal rainfall in the northern and eastern provinces."

The city of Lusaka itself is full of greenery and extremely well kempt. There is almost no rubbish on the ground, and no tall buildings to clutter the skyline. The people are very friendly and helpful. The local beer, Mosi, made from malt, maize and hops, is among the finest in the world.

Consumer International (CI), an influential network of consumer groups in 115 countries, had organised a conference in Lusaka for the African region on "Biotechnology and Food Security". Zambia’s rejection of GM maize in the midst of famine has raised the profile of GM crops; and there is a desperate need for quality information.

Zambia’s president Levy Mwanawasa had just reaffirmed his rejection of the 35 000 metric tons of GM maize sent by the US, on the advice of his own experts. A delegation of Zambian scientists and economists, headed by Dr. Wilson Mwenya of the National Science and Technology Council, completed a fact-finding tour of laboratories and regulatory offices in South Africa, Europe and the United States, and reported back to the president. The report concluded that studies on the safety of GM foods are inconclusive, and the US maize should be rejected as a precautionary measure.

The Zambian delegation included chief scientist Mwananyanda Lewanika, whose appearance in the Earth Summit galvanised many other African countries to unite behind Zambia in a commitment towards self-sufficiency and self-determination (Science in Society 16).

The president had stopped GM food already in the country from being distributed on 16 August after a national debate, and amid intense pressure to accept the GM food aid from the United States, the World Food Program, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation.

But widespread support for Zambia emerged when it transpired that there is plenty of non-GM maize available in the US, and the US was simply blackmailing hungry and desperate nations into accepting GM food (see Box).

The US has refused to provide non-GM maize or cash, and refused even to provide cash to mill the maize. It has violated the 1999 Food Aid Convention, of which it is a signatory. This Convention stipulates that food aid should be bought from the most cost- effective source, be culturally acceptable and if possible purchased locally so that regional markets do not suffer.

Between now and March, it is estimated that southern Africa will need up to 2m tonnes of emergency food aid grain. The FAO says there are 1.16m tonnes of exportable non GM maize in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa. Europe, Brazil, India and China have surpluses and stockpiles running into many tens of millions of tonnes. Even in the US, more than 50% of the harvest has been kept GM-free.

Of the famine-stricken countries in southern Africa, Swaziland alone accepted unprocessed maize. Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and Malawi had accepted milled maize flour only.

Widespread support for Zambia and condemnation of US

A coalition of 184 NGOs (including ISIS) registered their opposition to the way in which USAID is foisting biotechnology on Africa during a time of famine. They support a country’s right to refuse GM food aid and call on USAID to untie its food aid policy to donating GM food in kind.

More than 140 representatives from 26 countries in Africa signed up to a statement from African civil society in support of Zambia’s rejection of GM food aid, and refusing to be used as "the dumping ground for contaminated food".

OECD and the World Bank criticised USAID’s self-serving agenda: "Among the big donors, the US has the worst record for spending its aid budget on itself - 70 percent of its aid is spent on US goods and services."

Oxfam condemned the distribution of food aid contaminated with GMOs.

UK’s chief scientist David King denounced the United States’ attempts to force the technology into Africa as a "massive human experiment". He questioned the morality of the US’s desire to flood genetically modified foods into African countries, where people are already facing starvation in the coming months.

Director-general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), Jacques Diouf, said: "Wedon’t need GMOs to feed the 800 million people who are hungry in the world today."

Jean Ziegler, UN official said, "Genetically modified organisms could pose a danger to the human organism and public health in the medium and long term. The argument that GMOs are indispensable for overcoming malnutrition and hunger is not convincing."

James Clancy, president of Canada's National Union of Public and General Employees said, "[A]ll some folks in the US government and business communities can
think of is how to make even more money off [Africa’s] suffering"

Dr Charles Benbrook, leading US agronomist and former Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture for the US National Academy of Sciences, said, "There is no shortage of non-GMO foods which could be offered to Zambia and to use the needs of Zambians to score "political points" on behalf of biotechnology was "unethical and indeed shameless".

Carol Thompson, a political economist at Northern Arizona University, commented, "It is highly unethical not to just cover the costs for milling. Tell me how much it costs to drop one bomb on Afghanistan. Who is starving whom here?"

Roger Moore, goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, said, it was "inhuman" for the US to refuse other aid to Zambia, because of its rejection of GM food.

Many countries have given non-GM and financial assistance. According to Zambian government sources, South Africa has sent 10 000 tonnes, and China, 4 000 tonnes of non GM maize. EU has given €15 million to purchase non-GM food. Japan has also proffered financial assistance.

(See Norfolk Genetic Engineering Network website for details

The anticipated debate

The atmosphere was charged from the beginning as representatives from Africa Bio, industry’s ‘NGO’ based in South Africa and ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications), as well as many international agencies were invited along with Dr. Michael Hansen from Consumer’s Union USA, and myself from ISIS, to debate the science.

Consumer International regional director Amadou Kanoute named the international agencies invited that have failed to come to the conference: Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), World Health Organisation (WHO) and the European Union.

According to Auxillia Motsi, Food and Nutrition coordinator Programme of CI- region of Africa, who organised the conference, several pro-biotech organisations dropped out when they learned I was on the programme.

I believe they are afraid to debate the science in terms that the public can understand, so they can maintain the myth that ‘anti-GM’ is ‘anti-science’.

What the real scientists said

In the event, the ISAAA representative failed to show up, so Michael Hansen had the whole session on "Biotechnology, Environment, Health and Economic Issues" to himself. He went into considerable detail on the hazards, dispelling the myths that genetic engineering is just like conventional breeding, that GM foods had been subject to the most extensive safety assessment and regulation than any other food, and that all the commercially released GMOs are safe.

It turns out that FDA never did any safety testing, and its letter giving approval invariably states it is the company, not the FDA, that has concluded the GM varieties "are not materially different in composition, safety, or other relevant parameters" from those "currently on the market", and "they do no raise issues that would require premarket review or approval by FDA."

It was Belinda Martineau, the scientist who conducted the safety studies on the first commercial GM crop, who finally exposed the regulatory sham in her recent book, First Fruit, the Creation of the Flavr Savr Tomato and the Birth of Biotech Foods.

Hansen also presented substantial evidence that the ‘biopesticide’ Bt - endotoxins from soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis – widely incorporated into GM crops for controlling insect pests, are allergens and immunogens, and can damage the gut.

I shared the session on "Biotechnology, Food Security and Trade" with Jocelyn Webster of Africa Bio, and Cissokho Mamadou, farmer from Senegal representing Farmers and Producers of West Africa.

I referred to the copious evidence documenting GM crops failing on all counts, that they have been an economic disaster for farmer and the industry, and that the hazards to health and the environment are now undeniable. I dwelled at some length on the recent evidence of horizontal gene transfer that I have just delivered to my own government (UK) in an open meeting, and recommended decisive action "to stop this dangerous experiment now and let farmers in Africa and elsewhere get on to farm sustainably for health and self-sufficiency". (See "GM debacle, bad science + big business = ?" )

I also stressed that it is incorrect to say, "there is no evidence of harm". On the contrary, there is already reasonable suspicion of harm, which, in accordance with the precautionary principle, should demand immediate cessation of all environmental releases of GMOs.

Cissoko Mamadou emphasized that traditional knowledge has helped us master the use of our plants for medicine through natural procedures, which is scientifically recognized worldwide. "Unfortunately, no-one is interested in promoting this knowledge. Instead, it is the knowledge of biotechnology corporations which is being promoted and forced upon us."

That struck a chord among the participants from 23 African countries, including the poorest in the world.

The Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives, Hon. Mundia Sikatana, who sent a speech to open the conference, has said, "The challenge before scientists is to develop technologies that are relevant to our conditions and our way of life."

What industry said

Webster began by objecting strongly to the current issue of Science in Society 16 included in the delegates’ registration pack, calling it "a one-sided" document. If so, she more than redressed the balance. She sang undiluted praises of GM crops. ‘Anti-GM’ was ‘anti-science’, she implied, and dismissed all evidence of risks and of agronomic failures.

It is amazing how every pro-biotech scientist manages to say the same things. I’m told that training courses are put on for them to deal with people like myself.

Webster staged repeated outbursts and ‘walkouts’ whenever anyone said anything she did not like. She "behaved like a petulant child", according to many of the delegates.

While the official meeting was going on, she and her colleagues, Dr. Wynand van der Walt, representing the National Seed Organisation of South Africa, and Professor Diran Makinde, ‘bioethicist’ and dean of Agriculture at Vinda University, South Africa, and also member of Africa Bio, held a press conference in which she outrageously launched personal attacks against Michael Hansen and myself. According to the journalists who later reported back to us, she accused Hansen of presenting ‘fake’ and ‘out-of-date’ data, and made insulting remarks suggesting that I was not a ‘real scientist’.

Fortunately, this generated many interviews on television in which Michael Hansen, Amadou Kanoute and others had plenty of opportunity to put things right. There was widespread press coverage of the event, thanks, at least partly to the rogue press conferences that Webster and friends held.

Webster and van der Walt presented ‘data’ painting a rosy picture of how poor farmers in the Makhatini Flats of South Africa adopted Bt-cotton, and as a result boosted their yields, cut the use of herbicides and increased their income. However, those figures were thrown into considerable doubt when it transpired that they were not based on any published scientific report.

According to Mariam Mayet of Greenpeace, there is a report on the project, which is being "suppressed" by Monsanto. And when she challenged van der Walt, he said there was no report at all, and all the figures came from him personally.

Van der Walt began his presentation with a history of the movement of crop plants from one continent to another, to show that ‘biopiracy’ is not new, and that it was very important to protect intellectual property rights and to harmonise all over Africa with regard to seed supply.

The obvious riposte to the first half of his message is that no one patented the plant varieties in all the centuries when they were moved freely between the continents. But the second half of his message is the intended corporate stranglehold over certified seeds, which would prevent farmers from buying and selling or exchanging indigenous seeds, or even planting them. That requires urgent proactive action, I told the conference. It is necessary to set up community, national and regional seed banks and food banks, which, in addition to all the measures that the Zambian government has put into motion, would greatly contribute to food security in the long term (see "Zambia will feed herself from now on", to be circulated).

As for the many ‘benefits’ of GM crops, Webster had to admit under duress that they were "potential!", ie, baseless.

A naïve listener to the ‘bioethicist’ Makinde would be forgiven for thinking that God is on the side of the corporations, globalisation and genetic modification. He sprinkled his presentation with frequent quotes from the gospels. "Is it ethical to starve the populous in view of the fact that there is no scientific evidence against eating genetically engineered foods? Should economic and health status take priority over ethics?"

Industry and the pro-biotech lobby have done their propaganda. A journalist suggested that if there is "open market" in Zambia, GM crops "will outsell non-GM". If that were the case in the world at large, I said, the US would not have had to dump unsold GM maize on Zambia and the rest of famine-stricken southern Africa.

The state of famine in Zambia is greatly exaggerated

In the course of the conference, it became clear that Zambia’s famine, though serious, has been greatly exaggerated by the pro-biotech lobby. Peter Henriot of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) said, "The figure of 2.9 million affected by the famine is not correct, it is closer to 1.9 million. That’s still very serious in a country of 10 million."

Rumours were rife, many coming from the local WFP office. People were apparently told that the Americans have given Zambia "a ‘miracle maize’ that’s very tasty and nutritious, and grows in 30 days".

The point was repeatedly made that there is enough food in Zambia to alleviate the situation. There is substantial surplus of Cassava in the Northern province and elsewhere that could be purchased and shipped to the worst hit areas in the Southern province for distribution. There is also still some locally produced maize available in some parts of the country.

Dr. Obed Lungu, dean of the school of agriculture at the University of Zambia, was among those who stated in the strongest terms, "No one has died of famine, despite claims in the hostile media. And there is enough food to feed everyone." The government has to offer the northern farmers the right purchase price and to solve the logistics of distribution.

This was driven home in a video produced jointly by the JCTR and Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre, the two organisations that first documented the surplus of Cassava in the north, and the readiness of people in the famine-stricken regions to eat Cassava instead of their usual diet of maize. Part of the solution was indeed to purchase Cassava from the north and distribute it in the south, said Bernadette Lubozhya, researcher for JTCR. That has the added advantage of stimulating local agriculture.

The same problem afflicts Mozambique, said Samuel Boni of Pro-Consumers Mozambique, and probably also other southern African countries. So why not solve the problem similarly?

The Lusaka Declaration

The conference ended on a high note with the "Lusaka Declaration" supporting Zambia. It rejects GM technology as a solution for food security. It also rejects private intellectual property rights on genetic resources for food and agriculture, and demands that industry stops its "unethical influence on critical policy and decision making instruments and processes on biotechnology."

More importantly, it affirms that African countries can address food security through "maximising existing resources, tackling distribution problems; promoting local foods which are low-tech and highly resistant" to drought and other adverse environmental influences.

The Lusaka Declaration reflects the mood of elation that overcame the delegates. Kwaku Boateng of the Consumer Association of Ghana said, "Africa is waking up!"

As if to shower blessing on the event, rain fell through the night as we were due to depart.

(For more details, see

Article first published 29/11/02

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