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Junk Science and Inept Politics Compound Nature’s Wrath in Zambia

Prof. C Kameswara Rao
Foundation for Biotechnology Awareness and Education, Bangalore, India www.fbae.org; krao@vsnl.com, http://fbae.blogs.com/

It makes a very sad reading that the Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa had to declare a national food disaster, appealing for immediate donor help to feed over 1.7 million people left hungry, by crop failures due to drought in 2005 (Reuters, November 22, 2005).   The President seems to have acted very reluctantly, putting the onus on the Zambian Parliament, as he told the journalists that ‘Now parliament is the highest law making body in the land and in view of this resolve, I hereby declare the current food shortages a disaster in Zambia and I appeal for donor assistance.’

In July 2002, the Zambian government made international headlines when they ordered the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to take back over 35,000 tones of food aid, even while three million Zambians faced hunger caused by a severe drought, as the package contained ‘potentially unsafe GM maize’ (Panos).   The stand of the Zambian government received a standing ovation from the anti-GE groups the world over and this ‘bold decision’ was endlessly praised making the Zambian government the hero (see http://www.gmwatch.org, May 17, 2005, and November 10, 2005, for the latest).

In the GM debate in Zambia, a prominent issue seems to be the fear of dominance of multinational corporations in the field of agriculture, through GE crops and reprisals by MNCs on even accidental contract violations.   Pelum Association, Zambia, stated that ‘Commercial GM seeds are developed and commercialized almost exclusively by multinational enterprises.   The first interest of corporations is to create profit for their shareholders, not to feed hungry people or to worry about poor farmers and consumers who don’t have the money to buy patented GM products.’   This is not a scientific concern and the government can make suitable laws to protect the poor farmers and the consumers from the MNCs.

Panos identified three broadly categorized powerful anti-GE lobbies in Zambia that pressurize the government into an anti-GE stand:

a)      The agricultural exporters, such as the Tobacco Association of Zambia, the Zambia Export Growers Association and the Zambia Coffee Growers' Association, who are mainly concerned about the potential loss of the European market if their farms were contaminated by GE crops.   The recent approval of several GE crops by the EU should reasonably allay these fears.   Then Zambia’s main exports to Europe are only cotton and tobacco. For some time, food exports have been out of the question and will be so for a long time to come.   No responsible government can permit food exports when millions of its own people are starving to death.
b)      The Organic Producers and Processors Association of Zambia, which was worried about the effects of GE crops on sustainable agriculture.   This group blissfully ignores a very large number of articles, which reiterated that the co-existence of conventional, organic and GE crops is a fairly reasonable possibility.  
c)      The small-scale farmers, who constitute over three-quarters of all Zambian farmers.   They are afraid that GE crops could contaminate seeds grown by them, as the so-called 'informal seed sub-sector' supplies 80 per cent of all planting seeds in Zambia.   This fear is in ignorance of all research on gene flow issues related to the currently commercialized GE crops.

Unfortunately, as in most developing countries, the media remained largely a passive recipient of information.   As the journalists had very little knowledge of the issue, they could be easily manipulated in either direction, but at this particular point of time, the government’s view prevailed.   There does not seem to be any debate on biosecurity of GE crops.   Any pro-GE viewpoint quickly gets branded as standing up to the US, as observed by Anthony Mwikita, a radio presenter (Panos).

The Zambian government went a stage ahead in its anti-GE policy by building a modern molecular biology lab to detect GE component in food entering Zambia.   The project that began at the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research, received a donation of US$ 330,000, from the Norwegian government (SciDev.Net, May 13, 2005) and is expected to be operational soon,

What WFP had to offer contained a portion of GE maize and this was construed as an attempt to get rid off an allegedly dangerous US produce, which the US citizens themselves have been consuming for a long time with no reported adverse effects.

The question now is not whether Zambian government is justified in having an anti-GE policy, which is an entirely different issue from accepting GE mixed food aid in a food disaster situation.   The current crisis in Zambia justifies making at least a one-time exception to the policy to accept whatever aid is forthcoming.

One of the major concerns is that the seed from the GE component of food aid would escape and produce GE plants causing the so-called contamination of the native seed sources.   Ground seed cannot cause such a contamination; the Zambian government can arrange to supply ground seed, eliminating the chance of seed escape.  

Poor people who are starving to death need food from whatever sources and not exercises in counting the teeth of the gift horse.  The Zambian government should not stand on a misconceived notion of prestige at this moment of crisis.

Even if the Zambian government relents on GE food imports, the issue is not that simple, as WFP now requires an additional US$ 35 million to purchase food for 800,000 people  (Reuters, November 22, 2005).