LUSAKA -- Zambia is expected to import genetically modified maize (corn) from the United States to feed its 2.3 million starving citizens, according to the Biotechnology Trust of Africa, a regional charitable trust. Zambia has decided not to follow in the footsteps of hungry Zimbabwe, which two months ago rejected 10,000 metric tons of genetically modified maize from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
But scientists fear that the lack of a National Biosafety Framework in Zambia, could create difficulties in monitoring transboundary genetically modified foods.
Zambia is facing a lack of capacity and legal requirements to handle genetically modified food at the height of food shortages and hunger that is sweeping the entire Southern African Development Community.
The governments of several countries in Southern Africa have declared national disasters due to the food security crisis - Malawi in February, Lesotho and Zimbabwe in April, and Zambia on May 29.
The Zambian government is assuring the people that there is no need for alarm over genetically modified (GM) foods. Agriculture and Co-operatives Minister Mundia Sikatana says the public should not misunderstand governments current stand on GM food.
He said, for now, Zambia is not accepting the technology of genetically modified foods. The minister said the country has vast resources to meet the food requirements of its people, without depending solely on genetically modified foods.
The ministers assurances came in response to a statement by USAID that it would have difficulty in meeting targeted food supply requirements in an event that Zambia refuses to accept genetically modified relief foods.
USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios told a Congressional committee in June "it will be difficult, if not impossible," for the U.S. government to respond to the extensive food requirements that have been identified if Zimbabwe would not accept genetically modified foods. Zimbabwe has not accepted the GM food aid.
The USAID Vulnerability Assessment Technical Committee in Zambia has identified 38 districts as requiring food relief assistance during the 2002-2003 consumption season. On July 10, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that an estimated 250,000 refugees in Zambia would continue to receive half rations because of the food shortage.
The Zambia National Farmers Union said Thursday that Zambia's current food crisis is a result of failure by the government to address the country's entire agriculture value chain. Speaking at the union's annual congress, outgoing union president Ajay Vashee said the major cause of rural poverty in Zambia is corruption and bad practices which have contributed to poor performance of the agriculture sector. Agriculture and trade in farm products makes up 40 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
Zambia has decided to eat first and worry about the possible negative effects of genetically modified foods later. These include possible allergenic reactions and resistance to antibiotics. Critics say that genetic engineering uses material from organisms that have never been part of the human food supply to change the fundamental nature of foods, and they call for long term safety testing of transgenic foods.
USAID Adminstrator for Democracy Roger Winter, during a recent visit to Zambia, maintained that there is no scientific proof to cause concern about the dangers of genetically modified foods.
In defense of its GM food aid, the USAID Food for Peace office explains that, "The transgenic soybean and corn varieties commercially produced in the United States have been reviewed under the U.S. regulatory process for determining the safety of new agricultural biotechnology products."
"Soybeans and corn varieties, including transgenic varieties, used for domestic consumption are the same as those used for export, including food aid, USAID says. "In the United States, biotechnology products are not commonly differentiated or segregated either for domestic consumption or for export."
On July 11, USAID said it will provide an additional 160,000 metric tons of food commodities to southern Africa. The contribution of corn, vegetable oil, and beans will sustain approximately 10 million people for one month and is valued at US$82 million.
There is a growing interest among African countries about biotechnology and genetic engineering. The Biotechnology Trust of Africa, which promotes biotechnology research development in agriculture, health, industry, environmental management in Africa, recently organized a second eastern and southern Africa workshop on Intellectual Property Rights in Lusaka. It attracted 40 participants from Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Swaziland, Namibia, Mozambique, Botswana, Lesotho and South Africa.
The industrialized world and big companies have been warned not to make a profit out of the biodiversity and the lack of local knowledge in poor countries.
Lovemore Simwanda, chair of the Environmental Conservation Association of Zambia, says issues of biotechnology should not be a preserve of laboratory scientists and patent offices. We need to explore the needs and priorities of intellectual property rights and biotechnology in Africa."
The rights and benefits of poor communities especially farmers and herbalists in using their traditional knowledge in poor countries must be discussed, Simwanda said at the workshop.
Zambia is among the seven African countries to benefit from the Southern Africa Regional Biosafety Program. SARB, which is funded by USAID is coordinated by the Agricultural Research Council in South Africa and will run up to July 2003.
USAID's Agricultural Biotechnology Support Program has established a partnership with the seven countries - Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe - to provide technical training in biosafety regulatory implementation. It will strengthen science based regulation of biotechnology in the region, and promote conformity with the science based standards of the WTO Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, USAID says.
The regional based training focuses on scientific risk assessment, access to information, risk management strategies, and genetic techniques.
Many African countries lack comprehensive policies on biotechnology and intellectual property. Though Botswana is a major importer of goods, services and technology, there is a general lack of public awareness on biotechnology issues, and it was not until 1998 that the Botswana Parliament approved a Science and Technology Policy.
In Swaziland, a small Southern African country without a local seed industry, there is no modern biotechnology application presently being run, according to research by the Registrars Office and the University of Swaziland.
In Malawi, there is a policy gap between activities in biotechnology and the legal framework for the protection of intellectual property rights. According to an overview of the status of intellectual property rights in Malawi, presented at the Biotechnology Trust regional workshop, almost all the seed companies currently marketing seed varieties in Malawi do not have their own research and innovation centers. There is need for political will and financial commitment, the study says.
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