'Sorry, we don't want your GM gift': if you are poor and starving you accept and eat anything, right? Wrong--not if you are Zambian.

Author:Gello, Zerina
Position:Around Africa: Zambia - Genetically modified foods

After months of serious consideration and debate, the Zambian government has categorically rejected Genetically Modified (GM) corn sent by America as food aid, on the advice of its scientists who say they cannot guarantee it is safe for human consumption.

The Zambian government dispatched four scientists on a 22-day mission to South Africa, USA and Europe to investigate the safety of GM food. They returned with the verdict that "there is no concrete evidence to suggest that GM food is safe or unsafe for humans". They, therefore, recommended that the government err on the side of caution and reject the American gift of GM corn which President Levy Mwanawasa had already labelled as "poison".

As a result, the agricultural minister, Mundia Sikatana, holding fast against a barrage of hostile criticism from America, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAG), has banned the importation of all GM food and ordered the WFP not to distribute any of the 12,000 tonnes of GM grain already in the country.

Zambia's arguments are neither new nor complicated, but the fact is there have never been any cast iron answers.

Sikatana argues that since GM food is developed to improve crop protection by introducing resistance against plant diseases caused by insects or viruses, or through increased tolerance towards herbicides, "there is definitely some diminishing of nutrition and introduction of foreign species into our bodies. It is that which is of concern, we want to know what effect that foreign matter has for our bodies. And so far, no one has been able to convince us it is harmless"

There is also the risk of contaminating local seed, or out-crossing as it is called in scientific circles. There is a likelihood of genes from GM plants moving into or mixing with natural crops. This fear is real. According to the WHO, there was an instance when a maize type approved for feed use appeared in maize products for human consumption in America. That is not all, GM seeds are patented, usually in the North. Resource poor farmers of the South would not only be unable to afford the seed, a dependency syndrome on the seed industry would also be created, further threatening food security and sinking the agricultural industry of the South.

Worldwide concerns about GM food have had a significant impact on the marketing of GM products in the EU. It is in this vein that Zambia is concerned about the consequent threats to its...

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