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An organic perspective from Zambia

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by Patrick Killeen
Organic farmer in Zambia

(July 30, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- The current GMO situation in Zambia has speeded up a gear lately. USAid is currently offering $50 million in aid provided that it is used to purchase genetically modified maize. Zimbabwe has rejected the maize and Mozambique has even refused to allow it to be transported through that country. Zambia had a change of president in Jan 2002 and he is making serious efforts to weed out corruption, particularly that of the previous incumbent and his regime. The current vice-president was a high profile member of the previous regime. Drought here has mainly affected the south of the country where already hunger is evident, hence the USAid move which although generous comes with a catch of GM maize only. Currently the bio-safety regulations, which are firstly required to be passed by parliament prior to any importation of GMOs are not yet in place, therefore the VP is trying to push them through.

The introduction of GM crops are being pushed by the cotton companies (Dunavant) and by some people who see them as the way forward for the small scale farmers. Opposition is mainly from exporters, NGOs,tobacco association and organic farmers . The consultant (Dr. Peter Gregory from Cornell University, USA) to advise the government was funded by USAid. His report has caused some division in the Farmers Union (ZNFU), it was a little biased in highlighting the potential benefits and negating any possible risks. On Tuesday of last week the VP informed the public of the intention to take up the USAid offer to alleviate the famine in the southern province.

On the morning of July 25, a live national radio programme on Radio Phoenix with a panel from both sides was aired (I was on the panel representing the commercial viewpoint.). Other options were examined e.g. other crops to reduce dependence on Maize i.e. sorghum, rice, cassava etc..., Cuba's organic success story, Ethiopia with a food surplus from a mix of organic and conventional methods and open pollinated varieties were offered as some examples of another way forward. The unanimous public telephone response was "NO," let's wait, we do not have the money to safegaurd the nation from any potential errors. The VP was booed by fellow parliamentarians (many who had listened to the radio programme) later that day when he tried to rush the bio-safety bill through and it was rejected. A press response from the VP and USAid negated the fears and highlighted the hunger in the south. The Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) working closely with organic farmers has commisioned a report on the potential risks to Zambia from the introduction of GMOs. It has released a press response to the VP/USAid response to the radio programme today. The full JCTR report is due for release on August 15.

The VP has commissioned a group of scientific experts to assess the risk to human health, as a recent university study from the UK has shown that microflora in the gut have the GM soya DNA after GM soya was fed to humans in the first trial of its kind. The multinationals had said this could not happen !! The USAid administrator in Lusaka has said that there is nothing to fear because he and his family have been eating GM foods for 5 years and have experienced no side-effects. The same USAid rep said that the US government would not support certain agriculture development programmes in the Southern African region, but stopped short of saying what these were (but he did give Zimbabwe, which incidently has refused GM maize but also has a dubious political regime as an example).

There is currently a high level of satisfaction with the new president Mr. Mwanawasa, who is working hard to eliminate corruption from the highest levels down. Hopefully the VP Kavindale will not bow to USAid pressure and accept the GM maize. Internationally, tests on the possible risks are throwing up some worrying results. Non GM funded/company research is tiny, hence the lack of independent non-GM company funded info.

There is a lot of selective misinformation being put out by the few to the detriment of many. The introduction of GMOs into Zambia is not to help the small scale/peasant farmer as US multinationals would lead us to think. If we are honest, GMOs are there to line the pockets of the GM company shareholders/distributors with no thought to the cost of the long term sustainability of mankind and the environment upon which we totally depend.