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The Real Story Behind the Food Crisis in Zambia
by Mwananyanda Mbikusita Lewanika,
National Institute for Scientific & Industrial Research (Zambia)
[This article is based on the author’s presentation at the May 16–18, 2003 Biodevastation 7 Conference in St. Louis, Missouri.]
The Zambian economy has had a history of over-dependence on the mining industry. This state of affairs has been balanced by increased investing in the agricultural industry. In the 1970’s and 80’s, agricultural production was increasing steadily. The problem was in the management of post harvest losses due to inadequate storage facilities. The situation changed at the onset of the 90’s due to the introduction of the Structural Adjustment Program of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The Structural Adjustment Programs stopped government involvement in agricultural production. The government removed agricultural subsidies and stopped procuring agricultural inputs such as seeds and fertilizer. This move adversely affected small-scale farmers who produced 80% of the food. Subsequently food production dropped, making it difficult for the government to manage food emergencies.
Zambia experienced a food crisis in the 2001–2002 agricultural season due to unfavorable weather conditions. The food crisis was most acute in the Southern Province of Zambia and to some varying degree in parts of Eastern, Central, Western and Lusaka Provinces. This particular food crisis was nothing unique because usually food shortages or sometimes famine in Southern Africa caused by drought are cyclical, like El Niño.
…a lot of uncertainty about the safety of GE foods…necessitated the Zambian Government to evoke the Precautionary Principle.
In response to the food crisis, the World Food Program (WFP) of the United Nations offered Zambia food aid in the form of corn. The WFP only informed the Zambian government that some of the corn was genetically engineered (GE) after it was already in the country. Three institutions—the National Science and Technology Council, the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research, and the Soils and Crop Research Branch of the Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives—independently advised their respective Government Ministries against the acceptance of the GE food aid. The government advised the WFP not to distribute the GE food aid until further notice.
National consultation on GE food aid
The Zambian government then called for a national consultation on whether or not the country should accept GE food aid. The national consultation was conducted in the form of meetings, interactive radio programs, interactive television programs and newspaper articles. Some people contributed to the national consultation on GE food aid by writing letters to newspaper editors. Even Zambians who lived outside the country expressed their views on GE in general and also on the issue of GE food aid through newspapers. The national consultation on GE food aid culminated in a national public debate on GE foods.
Zambian citizens from all walks of life participated in the national public debate on GE foods. Prominent among the participants were traditional leaders, members of parliament, representatives of non-governmental organizations, scientists, university lecturers and professors, senior civil servants, representatives of agencies of the United Nations, representatives of the donor community and ordinary people. Only two government ministers attended the debate, the Minister of Agriculture and Co-operatives and the Minister of Science, Technology and Vocational Training. The Secretary to the Cabinet chaired the national debate on GE food.
I presented a position paper prepared jointly by the National Science and Technology Council, the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research, and the Soils and Crop Research Branch of the Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives. Participants to the national debate were invited to react to the position paper and make other comments.
A representative of traditional leaders said they would support the advice from Zambian scientists. An overwhelming majority of participants spoke against accepting the GE food aid. Only a couple of participants spoke in favor of accepting the GE food aid. A report of the national public debate on GE foods was presented to government, recommending that the GE food aid should not be accepted.
The Zambian Government deliberated on the report of the national public debate and the recommendation that emanated from it. The Minister of Information and Broadcasting announced to the nation and the world at large the decision by the Zambian Government not to accept GE food aid. The Minister made it clear that the decision by the government was not an indication of a lack of appreciation of assistance that was offered to Zambia. He went to urge all well-wishers to source for non-GE food aid.
Basis of the decision
Zambia, like most African nations, currently has no regulatory system and appropriate infrastructure to cope with the scientific assessment that came with the introduction of GE products. There is still a lot of uncertainty about the safety of GE foods, not only for human and animal consumption but also for the environment. This necessitated the Zambian Government to evoke the Precautionary Principle. In addition, the GE food aid was brought into the Zambia without the “Advance Informed Consent” by the Zambian authorities, contrary to international practice.
The health concerns were based on the following three reasons: GE foods might contain new food toxins or new allergens, and might increase antibiotic resistance because of the widespread use of antibiotic resistance marker genes in GE products. It was noted that the millions of Americans who consume GE corn do so mostly in processed foods such as corn flakes and taco chips, and the new genetic formations that might cause health problems would be rendered harmless during the processing of these products. By contrast, Zambians eat unprocessed corn as the staple food and usually as the only source of carbohydrates, so its impact would be different. Zambians consume it for breakfast, lunch, supper and as a snack between meals. Another consideration was that the likely recipients of the food aid are the most vulnerable members of the society—the old, women and children—some of whom are in a poor state of health and immuno-compromised.
…Zambians eat unprocessed corn as the staple food and usually as the only source of carbohydrates, so its impact would be different.
The environmental concerns were based on the fear of genetic contamination of traditional varieties since some recipients of the GE food aid would save some of it for planting since it came in the form of grain. This could lead to the loss of agricultural diversity in Zambia.
An example is the case of the Mexican native corn being “contaminated,” as recently reported in the science journal Nature of gene flow from U.S. corn varieties to criollo varieties in Oaxaca in southern Mexico. In addition, there were other mitigating factors, such as the worry that the Zambian agricultural exports to the European Union could be adversely affected.
Other mitigating circumstances
Non-GE corn was available in some parts of Zambia, in the region and elsewhere in the world. The northern parts of Zambia had a surplus of corn.
What was required were resources to transport the corn to areas of Zambia that had food deficits. A number of African countries had surplus corn that was non-GE that was available. Non-GE corn is available at the global level, even in the United States of America.
The Zambian government had made its decision not to accept GE food aid in July and August of 2002, and the impact of the food crisis was going to be critical in March and April of 2003. This gave well-wishers enough time to source for non-GE food aid.
Zambian agricultural exports to the European Union could be adversely affected.
A lot of resources and time was spent trying to convince the Zambia Government to reverse its decision. For instance, Zambian scientists were invited to undertake a fact-finding mission to the US, South Africa, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway and Belgium.
The decision by the Zambian Government not to accept the GE food aid had not been made under pressure from either local or international non-government organizations (NGOs) or the European Union (EU), as had been portrayed in the media and argued by international NGOs. The decision was entirely a result of internal consultations in Zambia. It was based in part on a scientific assessment of GE foods that called for the use of the precautionary principle.
Reaction to the Zambian decision
The heaviest pressure on the Zambian Government to accept GE food aid had come from agencies of the United Nations (UN), especially the World Food Programme (WFP), World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization. These three UN agencies issued a joint statement to the effect the there no reason for African countries not to accept GE food aid, since GE foods were consumed by millions of people globally and no adverse effects had been observed thus far.
The WFP insisted that it could not source non-GE food aid. It was not willing to provide resources to transport corn from surplus areas of Zambia to deficient areas. The WFP insisted that it would not source non-GE corn from the region because it could obtain corn through an open tender. The WHO went as far as inviting Ministers of Health from Southern Africa to discuss the issue of GE Foods.
The WFP…was not willing to provide resources to transport corn from surplus areas of Zambia to deficient areas.
The US put pressure on the Zambian Government through statements of senior officials. In his address to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the US Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that there was no reason for African countries not to accept GE food since Americans consume them. The US representative at the FAO was reported to say that those responsible for the Zambian decision not to accept GE food aid should be tried for crimes against humanity. The US Secretary of Agriculture, Anne Veneman, blamed the anti-biotech forces for scaring Zambians into believing that GE corn would harm them.
The Zambian incident had escalated into a full-blown diplomatic row. The US accused the “anti-science thinking” Europeans of persuading the Africans into believing genetically modified foods might be unsafe. In turn, the Europeans suggested that the Americans were cynically trying to shove GE corn they could not sell elsewhere down the throats of starving Africans, then calling it charity.
The Zambian government did not believe that it had made an irresponsible decision by not accepting GE food aid. It was not a question of letting its citizens die of starvation. Early warning of a food crisis had provided the WFP with enough time to look elsewhere for non-GE food aid. There was plenty of non-GE corn in the world’s granaries.
[12 sep 03]