Zambia rejects genetically modified food aid
As the country reels in hunger and starvation occasioned by crop failure and severe drought, the government has rejected relief food from the West in the form of genetically modified maize.
Zambia, like several other countries in the Central and Southern African region, has been hit by a serious food shortage, a situation that has led the government to declare most parts disaster areas. Over two million people have been affected by hunger as a result of grain shortages following a devastating drought that has rocked the country. Zambia alone, needs not less than 200,000 tonnes of maize grain to feed those affected both in rural and urban areas.
The United States government has indicated its readiness to supply Zambia with genetically modified maize to help cushion the impact of the severe grain shortage.
This suggestion has, however, met a lot of resistance from the government, civil society, and the general public who doubt the safety of the genetically modified (GM) grain. Neighbouring Zimbabwe and Mozambique have also rejected the US grain offer because of fears that it could have adverse effects on humans.
The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that Zambia needs US$61 million in food aid to avert an impending crisis. WFP Country Director Richard Ragan recently told a local newspaper that the Zambian government would be restricting the amount of food aid if it rejected genetically modified organisms foods. Ragan said that rejecting such foods would make his job difficult as most western nations like Canada and the US mainly supply them as relief food.
Zambian Vice President Enoch Kavindele recently told Parliament that the government could not take up the offer of GM maize without getting advice based on scientific research by Zambian experts. Nominated Member of Parliament and Minister for Agriculture and Co-operatives Mundia Sikatana recently said that the country was not ready to accept the grain. "For now, we are not accepting either the technology or the genetically modified foods. We have to come up with a policy which will safeguard the health of our people," he said.
Sikatana added that the government was collecting information and seeking opinions from scientists to help formulate a policy that will best serve the interests of the country.
Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa categorically stated in an interview with British-based Sky News: "We would rather starve than get genetically modified foods without establishing its safety." He, however, admitted it was wrong for the country to reject the offer.
Catholic Church-based Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR), adding its voice to the debate, said Zambia should not be pushed into accepting genetically modified grain without examining its impact on the agricultural sector.
"Government is acting wisely and courageously in the face of this challenge by slowing down the acceptance of the grain," said a JCTR spokesperson.
But while government is dithering on whether to accept the GM maize for consumption by its citizens, the U.S. government has already shipped part of the consignment into the country and more is expected. The U.S. Embassy's American Centre acting director in the Zambian capital, Lusaka, Carol Jean Locke, dispelled concerns that the maize posed a threat to the health of Zambians.
"America is just making available relief food so if the country does not want, that will hurt it," she said. One letter to the editor of a local daily on the on-going debate said it was rather cynical to offer such food at a time when Zambia was vulnerable due to drought and crop failure among other reasons.
Dean of the School of Natural Sciences at the University of Zambia, Dr Luke Mumba, in a series of articles on the subject, said the genuine concern raised about the maize was that local farmers were likely to keep some of the seed for planting.
"If this happened, there is a risk that the genetically modified maize will outcross with the non- modified one. The farmers may also mix their seed stock with the genetically modified seed. The two events may lead to contamination of local maize and loss of biodiversity." But he hastened to add: "Taking into account the gravity of the food crisis in the country, my personal views are that government should positively consider accepting genetically modified maize but should put in place appropriate risk management measures."
As the food shortage continues to bite, some Zambians in the rural areas - who are faced with starvation - have resorted to eating poisonous wild roots and vegetables, which require more than eight hours of boiling. The masses do not see anything wrong with GM maize and continue to blame the government for their suffering.