When Zambia rejected a US offer of Genetically Modified food aid, it was hailed and slammed in almost equal proportions. The director of Panos Southern Africa says this has thrown up urgent questions.
The policy dilemma confronting Zambia over whether or not to accept genetically-modified maize, offered as food aid by the United States, has thrown up urgent questions over the way – and the extent to which – debate over the issue has been allowed in the country.
When the government rejected the US offer in August, many commentators described the move as a bold step aimed at asserting the country's national pride.
But with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) estimating that nearly three million people faced starvation in Zambia, the rejection was seen by some Western observers as unreasonable – the UK Financial Times newspaper called it "absurd".
Now, following strong international pressure, a re-think is in the offing.
It is not as if there has been no public discussion about genetically modified organisms (GMOs). On 12 August the government organised a public debate in order to gauge the scientific evidence and other views. The debate highlighted deep divisions among Zambian scientists on the benefits of biotechnology.
The government voiced two concerns: initially, it highlighted the possibility of ill-health resulting from consumption of GM food. It later added an economic concern, saying GM crops may end up contaminating local non-GM crops and endanger Zambian agricultural exports to Europe, which maintain strict guidelines on GMOs.
These discussions were held against a backdrop of little media coverage of GMOs. According to one media content analysis, only four newspaper articles appeared on the issue throughout 2000. Almost all covered biotechnology in a general way, with little local contextualisation.
Focus group discussions organised by Panos in 2001, in conjunction with the Zambia National Farmers' Union (ZNFU), showed that farmers too were divided on the issue. While most small-scale farmers wanted more information on the subject, commercial farmers were opposed to GMOs, citing as their main reason the possibility of losing European markets for their existing non-GM exports.
The European Union accounts for 53 per cent of Zambian exports – mostly made up of processed and refined foods, primary agricultural commodities and floricultural, horticultural, animal and leather products.
Largely based on this trade-related rationale, ZNFU was among those organisations that welcomed the government's rejection of the US food consignment – others include the Organic Farming Association and the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection.
The scientific case for rejection is led by Dr Mwananyanda Mbikusita-Lewanika of the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research. He says there is compelling evidence that GMOs would have a negative impact on the local breeds such as millet, sorghum and traditional maize, with the possibility of causing an ecological problem that would affect farming.
Dr Lewanika says that the government would do well to err on the side of caution by invoking the 'precautionary principle' clause of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, arguing that his fears are borne out by a peer-reviewed study that showed GM plants to have had adverse ecological effects on Mexican local maize varieties.
According to the precautionary principle, even if there is no clear scientific evidence that a seed type is dangerous, the government can decide to take the precaution of refusing it, if there is likelihood that it might be harmful.
Quoting research projects from around the world focusing on potential ill effects, such as toxicity, resistance to antibiotics, allergies, loss of biodiversity, and resistance to pesticides, Dr Lewanika builds a case for rejecting GMOs.
Dr Lewanika lays down two basic preconditions for allowing GMOs into the country. Firstly, he says, there is a need to develop a national biosafety framework to regulate biotechnology and GMOs. Second, the government must build the capacity to detect and monitor GMO substances in foodstuffs coming into Zambia.
Alongside this dominant position has emerged a pro-GMO perspective. The proponents are largely drawn from a pool of University of Zambia (UNZA) scientists, among whom are some who have been working with South Africa's Muffy Koch, a senior microbiologist who is serving on the South African government's working group developing GMO regulations and drafting the country's position paper for the International Biosafety Protocol.
Foremost among these are Dr Luke Mumba, dean of the School of Natural Sciences, and Dr Fastone Goma, a medical doctor in private practice and research scientist in the School of Medicine.
Dr Mumba, quoting research sources from around the world, argues that "in the developed world there is clear evidence that the use of GM crops has resulted in significant benefits", including higher crop yields, reduced farm costs, increased profits and improvements in the environment.
He also asserts that research focusing on "second generation" transgenic crops – those more to do with increased nutritional and/or industrial traits – has led to such beneficial products as iron- and vitamin-enriched rice, potatoes with higher starch content, edible vaccines in maize and potatoes and maize varieties able to grow in poor conditions.
In drought-prone Zambia, says Dr Mumba, hardy, genetically-modified maize would be a useful contribution to ensuring food security.
"…Given the importance people place on the food they eat," adds Dr Mumba, "policies regarding GM crops will have to be based on an open and honest debate involving a wide cross-section of society".
But Dr Mumba and Dr Goma have complained of having been left out of the planning committee for the national debate held in August.
Both suggest that, if indeed it is true that GM maize might contaminate local crop varieties, the GM maize grain should be milled so as to ensure that it is consumed by the starving masses without there being the possibility of storing any of it for the next farming season. The position is shared by ZNFU.
Although most of the debate has been confined to scientific polemics, there has been some ideological-nationalistic opposition to GMOs. Led largely by Women for Change's executive director, Emily Sikazwe, this argument suggests that the US government, pressured by huge seed transnational corporations, has an interest in establishing future markets on the African continent for its GM food exports. Sikazwe says the US is not willing to offer non-GM maize in place of GM food aid.
What is clear from the debate so far, though, is the absence of the voices of the most affected people in rural areas. Bishop Peter Ndhlovu, the head of the Bible Gospel Church in Africa who has visited hunger-stricken villages, says: "The food crisis in rural Zambia is more grave than can be imagined from an urban perspective."
This echoes many concerns that the debate has been so urban-centred and elite-based that it has largely ignored the concerns and urgent needs of the rural poor.
The emphasis on scientific evidence as a basis for policy-making has rendered the 'public debate' elitist. Those who are not schooled in science have largely been on the sidelines, apart from some vocal civil society organisations.
While there is obviously a desire to learn more about the 'science' of GMOs, there is increasingly a political-economic movement that seeks to highlight the issue of unequal power relations between rich and poor nations as well as the role of multinational corporations in perpetuating research and development that may seek to 'scientifically' justify GM food.
It is also clear that there is a general lack of information about GMOs, especially among rural populations, including small-scale farmers.
There are signs that the government has actively marginalised the voices of those who would support GMOs. This trend is also evident in the largely one-sided way the media have covered the issue in Zambia, favouring those opposed to introducing GM technology into the country.
Fackson Banda is the director of Panos Southern Africa.