Southern African governments find themselves in a dilemma: they have to choose between letting their citizens starve to death or giving them genetically modified food aid that many believe may be harmful to health.
That was the predicament facing the region's cash-strapped governments when the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) provided them with thousands of tonnes of emergency food aid to help combat severe famine conditions. Some of the food came from donor countries, such as the US, which produce large quantities of genetically modified (GM) maize and other grains.
Zambia's withered grain fields: Does genetically modified relief food pose health risks?
Photo: ©WFP / Brenda Barton
Several governments in the region objected to the GM grain, especially Zambia and Zimbabwe, the countries hardest hit by the drought. Citing health and environmental concerns, Zimbabwe blocked the GM food aid from entering the country. In Zambia, where some GM grain had already arrived, the government placed it under lock and key, banned its distribution and then blocked another 40,000 tonnes that were in the pipeline.
In Zambia, the decision came after months of intense debate. Environmental and other "watchdog" groups critical of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have been influential, and through networking, forums and protests applied pressure on the government. Local civic groups and scientists conducted a study tour of the US, India, South Africa and Europe to investigate views about genetic modification. "We established from all the countries we visited that GMOs are a health hazard," the team maintained after returning to Lusaka.
Many Zambians believe that GMOs cause resistance to antibiotics, thereby cutting immunity to diseases, and that they may lead to the emergence of new food toxins or to allergies in people with poor health. "For Zambia, most people in outlying areas are of an average health status," argued Dr Mwananyanda Mbikusita-Lewanika, a Zambian scientist, "and if consumption [of GM grains] is high, then toxicity would equally increase."
Proponents of genetically modified foods counter that there is no solid evidence that they are, in fact, harmful to health. Even some of those who do, such as Dr. Tewolde Berhan G. Egziahber, an Ethiopian scientist and one of Africa's chief negotiators on biodiversity and biosafety, acknowledge that famine conditions require an emergency response. "The short-term effects of malnutrition coupled with HIV/AIDS outweigh the long-term effects of GM foods on health," argues Dr. Tewolde.
Reacting to the concerns in Southern Africa, the UN's WFP, Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization issued a joint statement in August 2002 stating that "the consumption of foods containing GMOs now being provided as food aid in Southern Africa is not likely to present human health risk. Therefore, these foods may be eaten." The UN agencies affirmed, however, that each recipient country has a right to accept or reject the entry of GM foods.
Some critics raise a separate concern: that genetically modified seeds may contaminate local crop varieties, known in scientific terms as "out-crossing." In addition to worries about the unknown effects on indigenous biodiversity, such contamination in turn could hinder exports to the European Union, which strictly controls GM experimentation and generally prohibits importation of such organisms.
In response to this particular concern, some African countries, including Lesotho and Mozambique, are milling the GM grain so that there are no seeds to enter the local farming system and the grain can only be eaten. Some contributing countries have offered to pay for the milling, including South Africa, the only country in the region that grows GM foods on a large scale.
As a result of such initiatives, Zimbabwe relaxed its earlier position by allowing in GM grain, provided it is milled upon entry. But Zambia did not.
'Zambians are not guinea pigs'
Although nearly 30 per cent of Zambia's 10.2 million people are facing starvation, the government of President Levy Mwanawasa has bowed to the concerns about the potential hazards of genetic modification and has flatly refused to accept GM grain. President Mwanawasa has repeatedly said that until he has sufficient and credible information to the contrary, he will not risk feeding Zambians a "poison" that could have long-term effects.
The government has said it will follow the "cautionary principle," which states that in the face of scientific uncertainty, a country should not take action that might adversely affect human and animal health or harm the environment. Noting that it currently has no technological capacity to handle GMOs, the administration nevertheless announced that it will set up a task force to study the issue more closely.
In the meantime, President Mwanawasa has asked Zambians to be "patient" while the government does all it can to secure non-GM food. "I will not allow Zambians to be turned into guinea pigs no matter the levels of hunger in the country."
Minister for Agriculture and Cooperatives Mundia Sikatana said in similar terms: "We will get good food for our people, food that we can guarantee is good. We should not be bulldozed into accepting what we do not want."
Zambian opinion is not entirely united on this issue, however. Some opposition politicians and non-governmental organizations say that the immediate concern should be averting hunger. They also note that Zambians have already been eating GM foods which have been imported from South Africa and are available on supermarket shelves throughout the country.
'The pain is real'
Despite the controversy, the WFP has continued to offer GM food aid to countries in need. "As long as food aid is certified as safe by the donor country and is acceptable to the recipient country," it says, "then WFP will distribute the food."
The agency notes that it has been distributing GM food aid elsewhere for some time, and in Southern Africa itself since 1992/93, with no reports of deaths or health concerns.
With some 2.9 million Zambians facing famine conditions, the WFP implored President Mwanawasa to reconsider his position, explaining that the rejection of GM food would narrow the pool of available relief resources and possibly lead to breaks in the food pipeline.
"The pain of the people is real," emphasized Mr. Richard Regan, head of the local WFP office, during the launch of the UN's $71.4 mn emergency food aid appeal for Zambia. "We need to start moving now, and in an effective way."
Some participants in the debate over GM food aid note that the issue goes beyond the best way of providing short-term emergency relief. The international community, they say, should start paying greater attention to agricultural development, to ensure Africa's long-term food security. Says Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), an international non-governmental organization promoting sustainable management and use of agriculture biodiversity: "The issue is not whether a few sacks of GM maize are going to make people in Southern Africa keel over and die, but whether the international community is really bent on helping African farmers support their families, their communities and their integrity."
Mercedes Sayagues, in South Africa, also contributed to this report.