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Controversy rages on GM foods as hunger continues to bite

As Zambians continue to starve, opinions are sharply divided on whether the country should accept Genetically Modified (GM) food donated by the US Government.
Singy Hanyona

The controversy surrounding genetic engineering has left no one out as many African countries strive to implement biosafety systems. A number of African countries, Ghana, Kenya and Zambia have no comprehensive policies to handle this technology.

Dr Dorothy Mulenga, a leading Zambian Consultant on Food Safety, says while genetic engineering promise benefits to society, its nature raises ethical, environmental and development issues. Mulenga, says there is a need for the general public to understand Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

She said Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton and maize are genetically modified crops that have undergone commercial field-testing that are of interest to Zambia. "Genetic material from Bt, is introduced into cotton and maize. This enables the cotton and maize to produce poisons against certain insects", she said. "It poses new regulatory challenges. It is a big question and there are no answers to it”.

"At the moment, no one knows enough about GM crops to categorically state that they will be baneficial or harmful to the environment", says Mulenga. She advices the African people, despite hunger situation, not to be alarmed about the GMO technology. "I cannot say don't eat it genetically modified foods, because the proponents say no one has died of it”.

Zambia is still embroiled in a heated debate, with uncertainties on the safety of transgenic corn from the United States of America, which it has rejected. Republican President Levy Mwanawasa has so far sent a team of scientists to the U.S to ascertain the safety of the maize.

Two months ago, the American Embassy in Zambia, brushed the assertion that the U.S is forcing Zambia to accept its maize for various ulterior motives. The U.S instead announced a further donation of nearly 28,000 metric tonnes of maize relief, subject to government's approval.

In defence of the genetic food, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios says America would only provide what they produce. "There is no way we can send corn that has got no biotech in it. If you want maize from the US, then you will get it (genetically modified)", Natsios said during a Dialogue Programme on Southern Africa Food Shortage, recently. The Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) and the Organic Producers Association have forged alliances in rejecting the food donation. The farmers fear that the problems of 'gene escape' into the environment could be real in the Zambian context, where traditional farming practices are such that farmers, especially small-scale, keep seed for planting in the next farming season. Lovemore Simwanda, representing ZNFU said if this happened, there is a risk that the GM maize will out-cross with non-GM maize fields, thereby contaminating local maize and affecting agriculture.

Simwanda said the debate over GM food has recently focussed more on questions of health, ignoring the issue of production. He said there is need to examine what would happen to Zambia's agricultural infrastructure if genetically modified crops came into the country.

Peter Manda of the Organic Farming Association said the organic industry in Zambia has the support of 3000 members country wide for zero tolerance of GMOs. "We have a responsibility to safeguard the interests of small-scale farmers", he said.

In support of GM maize, Dr Luke Mumba Dean, School of Natural Sciences at the University of Zambia (UNZA), says the issue is controversial and that government need to make its position quickly and clearly. Mumba said it is possible that Zambians may be blowing the GM maize issue out of proportion.

He argues that chances of out-crossing of GM maize with local conventional maize varieties are marginal because the maize that is coming into the country is in form of grain and not seed. "The chances that when planted, it will germinate may be very low. In a famine situation such as ours, people are going to consume most of this maize as opposed to keeping it for planting in the next season", he argued

Mumba argues that GM maize is safe to eat, adding that: "posterity will judge this generation harshly if today we let 2.3 million Zambians die of starvation unnecessarily and then 30 years down the line, it is confirmed that GM maize is just okay after all".

But the Women's Movement in Zambia has strongly rejected the promotion of GM foods. Emily Sikazwe, Executive Director of Women for Change said such calls amount to crimes against humanity. "I am a Scientist myself, and I will not join a bandwagon of those that will hang our people to GM food", said Sikazwe. She alleged that during the 2nd World War, scientists were used to manipulate and commit crimes against humanity, and hoped that Zambian scientists would not fall prey.

Some concerned Zambians have suggested that government should make a directive that all GM maize be processed into meal at port of entry as soon as it arrives into the country. This would ensure that the seed does not leave the maize depots. Preliminary discussions with the millers indicate that milling companies in Zambia have the capacity to process 45,000 metric tonnes of maize per month. Presently, 20,000 tonnes of GM maize is said to be in the country, raising legal and ethical questions of how it might have come in. A leading Food Technologist and Scientist Dr Mwananyanda Lewanika says under the Cartagena Protocal on Biosafety, governments are required to use internationally accepted norms to decide whether to accept GM foods or not.

The Cartagena Protocol is a legally binding international instrument that governs the cross-border movement of Living Modified Organisms (LMOs). At the moment, both Zambia and the U.S have not ratified the protocol, but were part of its adoption. This means that Zambia has no capacity to detect or handle GM food stuff.

"It, therefore, cannot monitor the unintentional and illegal introduction", said Lewanika. In the absence of a National Biosafety Framework, the Zambian government has set up an Interim GMOs Committee to help put in place a mechanism to advise government on how to proceed with issues of GM foods.

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