Since 2002, when the late President Mwanawasa, R.I.P., banned the entry into Zambia of any Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) maize, the issue of the GMO has remained a controversial topic.

Having listened to arguments pro and con, on economic and health grounds, the President decided to abide by the "Cartagena Protocol" (CP) which requires caution when dealing with potentially harmful and scientifically uncertain matters. As a signatory to the CP, Zambia took the safe course of excluding GMOs and has remained on that safe - and wise course to today.

But the issue has in some circles remained alive and controversial, especially recently. On 06 May the Daily Mail of Zambia published a long story under the title, "Give Genetic Engineering a Chance to Enhance Food Security."

The author urged that at an up-coming COMESA meeting in Swaziland of Ministers of Agriculture and of Environment later this week GMOs should be given a green light to be more widely promoted in the region. Such a move, according to the article, would significantly help meet food security problems in the region.

I read the article with great interest, since the JCTR had been actively involved in the national indaba in early 2002 that had convinced President Mwanawasa not to allow GMO maize into the country. But what struck me strange about the article was that it concentrated on only one aspect of the argument against GMO, the health question. And it cited a Kenyan agricultural researcher who stated that "there are no known risks to the technology so far."

That assessment, of course, is not factually supportable. Let me return to that point later in this column.
GMO and development

But what was surprisingly missing from the Daily Mail article and its strong plea to give GM0s "a chance to help curb food insecurity in the region" was any discussion of the impact that introduction of this biotechnology would have on agricultural infrastructure in a country like Zambia. With perhaps 70 per cent to 80 per cent of food production in Zambia done by small scale farmers, bringing in a GMO farming scheme would have momentous impact on these farmers.

And recalling the 2002 debates, I believe it is this point about impact on the ordinary Zambian farmer that cautioned President Mwanawasa as much as concerns about possible toxic consequences.

Movement toward an industrial model of agricultural development, with dependence on multinational seed companies and questionable long-term sustainability and environmental consequences, was not seen in Zambia's best interests. Those who follow this debate know that this point has been even more highlighted in recent years. Let me cite just two examples of this highlighting.

First, last year there appeared a widely comprehensive and extremely influential report with a very long title: "International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development." This IAASTD report, sponsored by major United Nations institutions along with the World Bank and others, worked for four years with more than 400 scientists and development experts who examined the intertwined problems of global agriculture, hunger, poverty, power and influence.
Its conclusions were that governments and stakeholders needed to significantly rethink the existing food system, which is neither socially nor environmentally sustainable. Major focus was on the small scale farmer as the backbone of agricultural production that would be sustainable in the future.

The report's refusal to wholeheartedly endorse GMOs - indeed, its raising of serious questions about that model of agricultural development - provoked the two major GMO seed producers, Montsano and Syngenta, to quit the study and the USA to refuse to sign on to the study.

A second example occurred at an international meeting that I was attending in Rome in October 2009. Jacques Diouf, Director General of the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), delivered an impassioned address on the global hunger problem.

When asked whether GMOs were needed to fight hunger, he responded quite forcefully that local farmers needed infrastructures - e.g., irrigation, feeder roads, storage sheds; they needed extension services for training and market advice; they needed local seed enhancements and sustainable agricultural techniques (like conservation farming). They did not need to be captured by large multinational seed corporations who are pushing GMOs!

Surely we need to hear these words of advice (and many other similar ones) in Zambia if there is to be any reconsideration of our ban on GMOs.
GMOs and health

But let me return to the health question about whether the GMO approach to food production is safe or not. The Daily Mail article surprisingly dismisses opponents of GMOs who the author claims have argued "that the food is unsuitable based on myths, ethics, religion and the precautionary principle enshrined in the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety." He refers back to the Zambian rejection of GMOs in 2002.

Well, I do know the grounds of rejection based on the well-respected Cartagena Protocol to which Zambia is a signatory. Simply put, it says "don't take chances when human safety is involved!"

But what the "myths, ethics, religion" basis for rejection is, I'm not sure. The author did not give any details for his assertion. I would have thought that the caution or outright rejection is more substantially based on the increasingly large and strong body of scientific questions relating to the health safety of GMOs. Simply do a "google search" and you will see plenty of those scientific questions posed by very respectable sources!

Just recently, I heard a former UNZA biology professor, John Moore, describe some of those questions, relating to issues such as allergies, potential toxic effects, nutritional issues, etc. This isn't my field of expertise, to be sure, but Professor Moore at least raised enough concern in me to wonder how the Daily Mail article could have approvingly quoted that Kenyan researcher who said that "there are no known risks to the technology so far."

Something that Professor Moore mentioned that raised my concern is why in the USA there is an absolute ban on labelling food products as "GMO" or "Non-GMO"? If the big pushers of GMO food are convinced that there is nothing wrong with their products, then why don't they simply let the consumers make the intelligent choices they want to, whether to buy a GMO food or not to buy it? Isn't that a very "free market" principle that one would think would be considered sacred in the USA?
GMO and Zambia's future

So where are we at this moment in the debate over the GMO? A debate that seems to be heating up again? What are the implications for Zambia's future food security?

Surely the most important point to make is that the meeting on 20 and 21 May in Swaziland which probably will be attended by key Zambian Government Ministers should not agree to any recommendations that would go against or substantially undermine the current Zambian ban on GMOs.

I say that because much more public debate - pro and con - deserves to be raised over this whole GMO issue. Zambian policy should not be driven by outside forces with significant financial interests in promoting GMOs.
Let's hear more public discussion of this issue, certainly one of President Mwanawasa's major "legacies"!