Will their protests leave her hungry?
Daily Telegraph (UK) 23nov02
When Britain launched its public debate last week on genetically modified crops, the talk was of government indifference to the outcome. But the British response to GM has an importance that extends far beyond its shores.
While this country's full-bellied citizens discuss the niceties of outcrossing and allergenicity, Africans are listening from countries where the issues are raw and overshadowed by starvation. Only last month one African country rejected GM food aid after consultations in Europe.
GM protest: Britain's pressure groups have had a hotline to the Zambian scientists who advise their government about GM relief maize
Britain's - and Europe's - attitudes to GM are profoundly shaping the African response. Last week Gordon Conway, president of the development charity the Rockefeller Foundation, said that a European ban on GM crops would have a devastating effect on African agriculture.
The repercussions of the British debate can be seen most acutely in Zambia, where three million people face the possibility of starvation because of drought. Some time after international relief maize began to arrive, the Zambian government discovered that it was partly GM and that accepting it had major environmental and perhaps health implications. Lacking the laboratories and protocols, Zambia turned to Europe for guidance and has now rejected 63,000 tonnes of American maize. It even turned down milled GM maize, free from seeds that farmers could plant.
"We believe the government of Zambia has disregarded the scientific evidence and is rejecting the advice that accepting this safe maize to feed its hungry people would help avert human catastrophe," the United States complained. But Zambia looks to Europe, not to America.
Britain's pressure groups have had a hotline to the Zambian scientists entrusted with advising their government about GM relief maize. The Zambians have instinctively accepted their suspicion of the motives of the United States in flooding Africa with GM food - and they have been particularly moved by the health fears that erupted in Britain in 1999.
In September, Zambia's scientists sped around Britain, Brussels, Holland, Norway, America and South Africa on a quest to understand GM issues. One of the seven-member team told me: "I did see things differently from the way I saw them before I left: I got more scared."
Dr Mwananyanda Lewanika is a biochemist at Zambia's National Institute for Science and Technology, holds two degrees from American universities and has specialised in biosafety for five years. He explained that his team rejected the maize largely because of health concerns raised in Europe.
His first concern is gene transfer - the idea that the foreign genes in GM plants could, while in the gut, transfer into the cells of the body or into bacteria in the gut. If the genes coded for antibiotic resistance, as they sometimes do, bacteria that picked them up could then rampage unchecked through human populations. Zambia's science minister, Abel Chambeshi, said a fortnight ago that donors are refusing to tell Zambia what kind of GM maize they have given.
Dr Lewanika also fears unintended effects resulting from gene insertion - that the functions of genes are not fully understood, and they may produce unpredicted substances that could be poisonous or allergenic.
How could Zambia's scientists have attached such weight to health risks that are mostly irrelevant to those who face starvation? During their three days in Britain, as well as meeting representatives from five government bodies, the team met a host of NGOs, many of whom pressed the health issues.
According to the Zambia Daily Mail, Farming and Livestock Concern UK said that the virus used to create most GM varieties "could form a retrovirus that could produce symptoms similar to HIV", a claim that will raise eyebrows among biologists.
Genetic Food Alert raised the "unknown and unassessed implications of providing large quantities of food containing resistance genes to a large population in Zambia". The scientists themselves report that they met a host of groups, such as Econexas, the Natural Law Party and the Third World Network, as well as hearing the arguments of more well known organisations, such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association.
These meetings convinced them that the health risks of GM are of even greater concern to Africans than to the First World.
"The people of Zambia are in poor health," says Dr Lewanika. "Many are immune-compromised. If the health concerns are true, they are more likely to affect those in Zambia."
The fact that Zambians eat untreated maize, while Americans eat their GM maize in a highly processed form, was also important to the scientists. "In Zambia corn is eaten as nshima [a porridge] for breakfast, lunch and supper. In America they eat it as cornflakes and tortilla chips, while corn on the cob is not genetically modified." Foreign proteins in the maize would perish en route to becoming cornflakes, he argues, but might survive the mild simmering that turns maize flour into porridge.
Kainyua M'bijjewe, Monsanto's spokesman in Africa, has accused groups such as Greenpeace of perpetuating starvation by helping to persuade African governments to reject GM foods. But Dr Lewanika dismisses such claims, saying that he is capable of assessing the soundness of research for himself.
Instead, he says, it was the groups who thought Zambia should accept the GM maize that failed to provide scientific arguments. They came across as patronising and unsympathetic to the anguish that has characterised Zambia's GM trouble.
Prof David King, Britain's chief scientist, appeared to Dr Lewanika to be dismissive. "He said that Zambia doesn't have a choice [and must accept GM maize]. But he also said that he does have a choice so he would not eat it himself.
"The Department for International Development said: 'You just accept it because you have no choice'. As a human being, I felt that these people actually didn't care. You are being told you are put in a position where it's given to you - so just accept it."
The pattern was repeated in the United States. "We met no one who could put scientific arguments for accepting GM. We were just told, first, that they are tested and, second, that they are eaten in the States. But when we went to the National Academy of Sciences and obtained a copy of their report assessing the regulatory mechanism in the US it says it falls far short of what should be done."
The five other famine-threatened countries in southern Africa have accepted GM relief maize - four of them provided it is milled before distribution, a process that is expensive and time-consuming but eliminates environmental risks. But milling protects them only from an immediate invasion of GM. Mr Conway's argument is that Africa's agricultural future depends on Europe becoming more receptive to GM crops. If Europe rejects GM, then African countries that accept it could lose their export markets.
"If in effect the EU says we will not buy any food from any country that happens to have GM crops growing in it, that will have enormous effect on African agriculture," he said.
Greenpeace has told Zambia that its burgeoning business selling organic produce to Europe could collapse if it accepts GM. The EU has denied this but Zambia decided to believe the NGOs. Peter Masunu, spokesman for the Zambian Department of Agriculture, said: "The Zambian government does not have the capacity to detect whether food is genetically modified, we have not yet ratified the Cartagena agreement [covering the transport and use of modified organisms] and we have no legislation in place on biotechnology and biosafety."
Whether Zambia will weather its immediate storm, and feed its hungry without the help of GM maize, is debatable - no one can even agree how much non-GM maize is available. In the long term, Mr Conway argues, Africa's fate lies in European minds, shaped by debates such as that launched in Britain.
"The developing countries, especially African, desperately need new crop variety, new medicines and vaccines. GM technology in Africa is not a silver bullet. But it is going to be essential if we are to produce crops resistant to pests, disease and weeds, tolerant of drought and of high nutritional quality."
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