1. Zambia's GM food fear traced to UK
an exclusive to New Scientist
Andy Coghlan, New Scientist, January 29, 2003
Doubts over the safety of genetically modified foods voiced by the British Medical Association were the main reason behind Zambia's decision to reject food aid in 2002, says a Zambian scientist who visited Europe this week. Famine still threatens 2.4 million people in Zambia today.
The revelation is significant because a trade war is looming between the US and Europe over GM crops. After Zambia refused the World Food Programme's shipments of American maize, on the grounds that they contained traces of GM strains, the US accused European governments and non-governmental organisations of "poisoning" opinion in Africa by exaggerating the risks to health and the environment.
New Scientist has now been told that Zambia was influenced predominantly by negative advice about GM foods from the BMA. The claim comes from Luke Mumba, a senior molecular biologist at the University of Zambia in Lusaka who is attending a summit on farming in Brussels.
In its policy document on GM foods, written in 1999, the BMA says: "We cannot at present know whether there are serious risks to the environment or to human health involved in producing GM crops or consuming GM food products ... and adverse effects are likely to be irreversible."
In particular, the BMA fears antibiotic-resistance genes, which act as "markers" in GM crops, could spread to bacteria, making them resistant to antibiotics. The report also says some GM foods might cause allergies. Neither fear has been substantiated so far.
Mumba says that before the Zambian government made its decision on the American maize it asked a group of prominent scientists to compile a report on the pros and cons of accepting it. And although the scientists interviewed 150 organisations and researchers around the world, they seemed to have been most heavily influenced by the BMA.
"In Zambia, they are always citing the BMA as the reason [for the decision]. They say that the BMA has no confidence in the safety of GM foods." The association is considered an authoritative body because of Zambia's historical links with Britain, Mumba says.
Delegates at the summit from other African nations want Zambia to review its position, saying the BMA is at odds with other bodies. "The American Medical Association backs GM food, as does the Royal Society in Britain, the Third World Academy of Sciences and the Food and Agriculture Organization," says Jocelyn Webster, the South African head of AfricaBio, an organisation promoting African biotechnology.
Vivienne Nathanson, director of professional activities at the BMA, denies the association has said that GM crops are harmful. "It's a misrepresentation of our policy to say that countries should not use these things," she says. "I don't see any reason why Zambia shouldn't accept the maize, but it's up to them." She says the BMA will be holding "round table" talks to decide whether its policy on GM foods needs updating.
2.UNZALARU accuses US of being driven by business motivation over GMOs
THE United States is being driven by business motives in their wish to supply genetically modified (GM) maize to Zambia, charged University of Zambia Lecturers and Researchers Union (UNZALARU) secretary general Dr. Timothy Mwanza yesterday. Dr. Mwanza accused the US of trying to take advantage of the hunger situation in Southern Africa to maximise profits for its multinational companies producing the GM maize. "We cannot depend on a Republican US government, driven and backed more by business motives than philanthropy, to lecture to us that GM maize is safe for human consumption," Dr Mwanza said. "We need to be extra cautious because we know that here in Zambia, maize is the staple calorie source consumed in larger amounts than in the US."
He said as a union, they were worried because some experts had allegedly been bought-off to convince the government that GM maize was safe. Dr. Mwanza said while the union realises that government has a responsibility to feed its people in times of hunger, any desperation in handling the problem could result in a serious disaster. He said another fear was that the GM maize could contain a terminator gene, an innovation that protects the patents of companies producing GM maize. "If GM maize containing the terminator gene is planted and cross-pollinates with our organic maize, we risk destroying the engine of our food security that is driven by small scale farmers, that depend on storing seed from their own harvest," Dr Mwanza said. "Small scale farmers produce over 80 per cent of maize in Zambia, thus as a union we are against this veiled form of colonisation from the US."
Dr. Mwanza said the GM maize could also contaminate the baby-corn grown by Zambian commercial farmers which is exported to the European Union where there is a ban on GM foods. He said currently, there was no bio-safety legislation related to the importation and use of GMOs. "In the absence of bio-safety legislation, what will happen if things go seriously wrong?" he asked. Dr. Mwanza said it was also important to undertake a comprehensive environmental risk assessment by local scientists. He said a location specific for assessment was required before making any conclusions on the effects of GM foods on the environment.
Dr. Mwanza said because the government had endorsed the precautionary principle by assenting to the Rio Declaration (Agenda 21) and the Convention for Biological Diversity, it was important that they do not take any risks by accepting GM maize. "We demand that the government should exercise extreme caution and think twice before it acts," Dr Mwanza said. "If you want to test the depth of a river, do not put both legs into the water." He said it was important to follow the EU's approach of rejecting GM foods because, on the basis of current data, it is not possible to assess the dangers to humans and the environment.
The US has maintained that it will only provide GM maize to all hunger-stricken countries in Southern Africa because that is what is in stock. United States Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator Andrew Natsios last week said as far as he was concerned, there was nothing wrong with eating genetically modified maize because American citizens have.