GMOs and Zambia

GMOs and Zambia

Photo credit:

Bridget O’Connor and Paul Desmarais, SJ

This article will not address the issue of genetically modified oganisms or GMOs directly. We now have more than 15 years global experience of GMO crops. There is abundant evidence from top scientists across the world that GMO food is harmful. They cause cancers, allergies, infertility, and affect internal organs. GMO crops cross pollinate with non-GMO plants and contaminate the world’s genetic resource base. GMO crops are bad for the environment. There has been an increase in chemical use in agriculture with the introduction of GMO crops. And in general, GMO crops perform less well than non-GMO crops.

Rather, this article will offer a brief history of the GMO saga in Zambia since 2002, and look at what is presently happening in Africa and in Zambia in particular in the past few years vis-à-vis crop seeds.

In 2002, Zambia became prominent on the global map for refusing GM maize from the USA. During the 2001-2002 season, Zambia suffered widespread crop failure due to poor rainfall. After careful research and debate, Zambia rejected the GM maize as a precautionary measure and looked for alternative sources. Zambia was accused, particularly by the US government and the biotech industry, of letting thousands of people starve to death by listening to Western environmental groups. Because some Jesuits were involved in the pre-decision GMO debate in Zambia, including two at Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre, even the Roman Catholic Curia in Rome was approached and urged to put pressure on the Zambian Jesuits to stop killing people. This accusation was emphatically denied by Zambia at that time. The Zambian Red Cross report for instance stated that they “didn’t record a single death arising out of hunger” during that crisis. However, the US and the biotech industry keep reviving the lie. Mark Lynas, currently in Africa as a GM ambassador, revived this lie as recently as April 2013 in a speech at the College of Agriculture & Life Sciences, Cornell University, quoting from the book “Starved for Science” by Robert Paarlberg published in 2009.

At the funeral of Mundia Sikatana, who was the Zambian Minister of Agriculture in 2002 and who managed the international fall-out, the Times of Zambia quoted Dr Guy Scott, Zambian Vice President, who recalled how “(t)his action (rejecting the offer) alone put the Government at risk of alienating some of our cooperating partners. The responsibility to explain to our people the Government position on this matter fell squarely on Mr Mundia Sikatana as Minister of Agriculture. He carried out this difficult task with distinction, while ensuring that not a single Zambian life was lost due to lack of access to natural, non-Genetically Modified maize.”

People and organisations promoting agro-ecology in Zambia thought the issue of GMOs and Zambia was settled in 2002. A Biosafety Policy was put in place in 2007 requiring stringent application procedures for GMO and included a “polluter pays clause.”

In 2010, Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre attended a Common Market of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) workshop that was called to agree to a regional GMO policy that will be far less stringent than Zambia’s own policy. COMESA has 20 member countries and its regulations are binding above national regulations. Kasisi learnt for the first time at this workshop that a specialised agency of COMESA was formed in 2009 with USAID sponsorship called Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa (ACTESA). This alliance’s development is described as: “Recognizing the potential of biotechnology in enhancing crop productivity and quality, a biotechnology and biosafety unit has been created within ACTESA, which is now responsible for spearheading the biotechnology agenda of COMESA.”

This event catalysed the coming together of organisations in Zambia under the umbrella name of Alliance for Agro-ecology and Biodiversity Conservation. They first put out a media statement of concern regarding the COMESA plan on 21 December 2010 and later worked on strategies to raise awareness particularly among small-scale farmers, produced a GMO cotton fact sheet in three Zambian languages, and organised a media breakfast in March 2012. During this event, the Secretary General of the newly ruling Patriotic Front party and now Minister of Justice, Mr Wynter Kabimba, proclaimed that “The Patriotic Front will not allow the importation and use of genetically modified organisms in the country because of the adverse effects they have on the environment and health,” as reported in the Daily Mail, Zambia. Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre includes a module to raise awareness on GMOs in all its farmer training courses.

This year, the Alliance became aware of another COMESA-ACTESA activity: the development of regional harmonised seed trade regulations to be signed into law by COMESA member states. The regulation is designed to facilitate the efficient and smooth flow of seed among COMESA countries, enabling seed producers to easily access regional markets by simplifying custom procedures and expediting seed variety release in the region. This process funded with millions of US dollars by the EU and USAID was quietly developed by technocrats over two years and only made public when ready for signing into law.

Alliance members working together with the Africa Centre for Biosafety managed to attend the Awareness Creation meeting in March 2013 and raised a number of concerns, particularly lack of safeguards to protect the rights of small-scale farmers to continue their traditional seed saving and sharing practices which conserves and develops the country’s plant genetic resources, loss of state sovereignty, and the creation of seed monopolies. A press release was put out representing these regional civil society concerns. One of the successful outcomes of this Alliance intervention was to hear the Secretary General of COMESA state that “COMESA does not have a GMO policy.”

South Africa and Egypt are the two countries in Africa that fully embrace GMOs. Recently biotech seed giant DuPont Pioneer bought out Pannar Seed, a South African seed company. Thus, Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer now control the entire maize sector in South Africa. Last 5 July 2013, The Post Online reported that Syngenta is acquiring MRI SEED Zambia Ltd and MRI Agro Ltd with the promise of investing US$ 500 million and creating 700 jobs. Syngenta has been in Zambia for about 10 years and Monsanto came in about two years ago. They have been selling agro-chemicals and non-GM seeds while waiting and obviously trying to influence change in Zambia’s attitude to GMOs.

The Southern Africa Development Community is developing a similar harmonised regulation based on the 1991 International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants Convention, more commonly known as UPOV 91. There is a similar pattern in process for a regional patenting organisation called African Regional Intellectual Property Organization.

These regional harmonised and less stringent regulations appear to be paving the way for the New African Agricultural Initiatives such as the African Agricultural Growth Corridors, the concept of which was pushed by the World Economic Forum. In 2011, the Forum put forward its ‘Roadmap for Stakeholders’ in preparation for its ‘New Vision for Agriculture’ which is led by 28 global partner companies representing the whole supply chain, from seeds, chemical inputs, production, processing, transport and trade, to supermarkets. These partners include Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), BASF, Bayer, Bunge, Cargill, Coca-Cola, DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta, Unilever, Wal-Mart, and Yara. The African Union, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and its Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, the Alliance for a New Green Revolution in Africa, and Grow Africa are also involved. This roadmap was followed by the formation of the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition in 2012 comprising the G8 nations, African countries, and many of the same private corporations.

African Agricultural Growth Corridors are being established across millions of hectares of African land, currently in Mozambique and Tanzania, with the planned potential for extending to Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and beyond. While claiming to increase agricultural productivity, these projects are likely to facilitate the appropriation of land and the displacement of small-scale farmers, while imposing high-input, industrial agriculture using hybrid and GM seeds.

Globally, there are at present a handful of large seed companies and they are buying up small seed companies. We have the case in Zambia where Syngenta wants to buy MRI, a local seed company and where most of its germplasm comes from Zambia. Zambian people should own this germplasm should be owned and not a foreign company. DuPont bought out Pannar in South Africa and the transnational seed company will dictate to farmers in South Africa, Zambia, and other countries, what seed will be available for them to buy. There will be much less choice for the farmer. The approach taking is much more sinister than the direct approach taken in 2002 in getting countries to accept GMO seeds.

Seed is the basis of food. It is the expression of Earth’s intelligence and farming communities over millennia. Until quite recently, every one owns seed, but now large corporate companies are re-writing the laws to their advantage. They are doing so in violation of seed laws and the democratic process. It is a sad state when those that should be regulated are in fact writing laws to get absolute power and absolute ownership over seed, which is life itself. What we have is not only a crisis of food and agriculture, but also a crisis of democracy that is being propagated in a large part by a country that prides itself on being the most democratic institution in the world!

The issue at hand is much more than a discussion on GMO seed. It is about democracy and ownership of life itself. Common sense might eventually prevail. The US Supreme Court recently ruled on a breast cancer gene that “a naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated.”

For now, Zambia still embraces the precautionary principal of the Cartagena Protocol regarding GMOs. There is a Biosafety Authority in place and according to the Acting Registrar, there are no applications received to date to research on or import GMOs into Zambia.

The authors are with the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre and their references for this article are the African Centre for Biosafety and The Law of the Seed by Vandana Shiva and which can be downloaded at Navdanya.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *