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July 26, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: A writer in Zimbabwe offers many reasons why
Africa should resist pressure from multinational corporations that
flood the farming sector with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
The push for genetically modified food is more about corporate
control than anything else.]

By Sifelani Tsiko

It is worrying that the majority of people in Africa have become
consumers of foods that they have no knowledge of how they were
produced and manufactured.

A conference on food security and the challenge of genetically
modified organisms (GMOs) which was held last week at Silveira House,
about 23km east of Harare raised stakes in the debate.

Participants at this conference which was organised by Environment
Africa and the Catholic-run Silveira House, who were drawn from South
Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe raised pertinent questions on the need for
African governments to set clear guidelines on GMOs when it comes to
food aid as well as the general consumption of other GMO products.

Andrew Mushita, the director of Community Technology Development Trust
(CTDT) said African governments should develop food aid policies so
that they adopt specific measures to guard against the dumping of GMO
food donations in their countries.

Delegates agreed that the adoption of GMO technology and food aid was
not the panacea to hunger in Africa.

"So far there is no technology to decontaminate GM seed. Food security
is fundamental for many people. Most of these technologies are not
focused on increasing food security and production but maybe disease
resistance," Mushita said.

There are huge risks to the smallholder rural African farmers if they
adopt GM-crops.

Experience highlights the danger of dependency and monopoly control
over GM seed by multinationals.

Large multinationals, Mushita said, have monopoly through their
country agents, subsidiaries and joint-venture exercises on the price
of the GM seed eroding the rights of the poor farmers to other

Kevin Roussel, an anti-GMO campaigner of the South African Catholic
Bishops' Conference, said new genetically engineered seed known as
"suicide" or "terminator" seeds which were engineered to be sterile
forced poor farmers to repurchase seed each year from the
multinationals who have patented these 'genetic use restriction

These GM seeds, he said, included "junkie plants" that were dependent
on chemicals sold by multinationals to flower, seed or sprout.

He said all farmers using GM crops in South Africa had to sign
contracts with Monsanto, a giant GMO corporation, where they agree not
to share their seed, only use Monsanto chemicals, buy new seed the
following year and agree to set aside 25 percent of their land as a
"refuge" area to control diseases.

Participants felt that GM seed would increase the dependency and
indebtedness of smallholder farmers to multinationals eroding the
communal rights, which entitled them to traditional crop varieties,
which they would share freely without added costs.

The multinational giants include Monsanto, Aventis, DuPont and
Syngenta (a merger of Astra Zeneca and Novartis) which dominate the
global agro-chemical business as well as genetic engineering

It is estimated that between them, they account for nearly two-thirds
of the $31 billion global pesticide market, one quarter of the $30
billion commercial seed market and virtually the entire GM seed

To push for further global control, these "Gene Giants" are merging
with the $300 billion pharmaceutical industry as plants are being used
to produce penicillin and insulin amongst other chemical and bacterial

The major actors in the GMO debate are the United States, which
supports it, and the European Union, which has largely opposed the
wholesale spread of the GMOs.

The US has tightened its law on GMOs but surprisingly still continues
to encourage use of the technology throughout the world.

"Both these blocs have tried to dictate their positions on other
countries in the absence of either side being able to convince the
other," said Roussel.

Resource poor farmers will never be able to afford technology fees and
the chemicals to grow the GM seeds.

Experts say about 1,4 billion people depend on saved seed for their

Worldwide hectarage of GM crops grew from 1,7 million in 1996 to an
estimated 60,7 million in 2002, showing the strength of the growing
influence of transnational corporations.

Roussel and Mushita said genetic engineering in its present form and
thrust cannot form part of the solution to the food crisis in Africa.

They said it merely worsens the problem and reduced smallholder
farmers to beggars and highly indebted people. They said it took away
the communal farmers' right to be able to save, sell and exchange seed

Muyatwa Sitali of Zambia said there was need to mobilise mass
campaigns to educate the poor rural farmers about the perceived
dangers of GMOs to human health and the environment.

"After analysing the issues at stake we realised that there was need
to blow the whistle," he said. "Are we going to refuse forever? Are we
not going to see any benefits coming with it? We have to educate rural
farmers about the risks and challenges that GMOs pose."

Other experts say there is enough food for everyone but the main
problem is the inequitable distribution process.

"Food aid comes as a result of the myth of hunger. Hunger in Africa is
unevenly distributed and I must say that this is a result of
inequitable economic systems which deny the poor access to food and
land, not merely inadequate supplies of food," Raymond Bokor, an agro-
ecologist wrote in a paper in 2003.

Most of the concerns which were raised by participants at Silveira
House centred on the monopoly by multinationals, the need to buy GM
seed for every new planting season to maintain high yield levels,
dependency on new generation GM seeds, rising input costs and
declining profits for smallholder farmers.

Of major concern was the possible loss of the existing robust crop
varieties and technologies that may reduce diversity, flexibility and
resilience in farming systems that could expose many to famine.

Additional concerns at the conference included the issue of the
ongoing globalisation and liberalisation of markets changes in
agricultural systems and how these were impacting on rural societies.

The US government, through the World Food Programme, has donated a lot
of GMO food items to some food insecure African countries as food aid
with no option for the recipients or governments to make any choices.

Mushita said the US must give such African countries other options
like cash to buy alternative non-GM food the way the European Union
was doing in some cases.

In 2000, Algeria banned the importation, distribution,
commercialisation and cultivation of GM foods and raw materials. Egypt
followed suit and banned the import of GM wheat and canned tuna packed
in genetically modified soybean oil.

Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Angola have rejected GMO maize offered
through the WFP as food aid, raising concern over the way hunger was
being used to impose GM crops and food on developing countries.

The Zimbabwe Biosafety Board screens food aid before it comes in to
safeguard the health of the people as well as protect the environment.

All GMO grain food aid is milled outside the country in periods of
distress and the country has enacted laws to manage and control GMOs
and biotechnological research.

Other countries in the region are in the process of enacting laws to
govern and control GMOs.

South Africa has embraced genetic engineering and is now producing GM
maize, milk, cotton, canola, wheat, apples, potatoes, sugar cane and
soy products.

Critics say most South Africans are not aware that they are consuming
GM foodstuffs due to lack of information, labelling and the
monopolistic influences of the multinationals when it comes to media
advertising, lobbying government and the funding of stooge NGOs which
support the proliferation of GMOs for profit.

"Cross contamination in the region is also a possibility. With
terminator seed technology this could be devastating for farmers,"
said Roussel. "The region could lose centuries of practice which will
be a major loss of indigenous knowledge systems. We should be wary of
making the same mistakes that formed in the Green Revolution."

Experts fear that genetic engineering in agriculture is likely to have
adverse environmental impacts that may affect the ecological basis of
food production. They say GM crops will stimulate the growth of
"superweeds" and "superbugs" leading to the use of higher doses of
chemicals making food supplies more vulnerable to pest damage.

Adoption of GM crops may lead to reduced genetic diversity resulting
in fewer and fewer types of food crops. This, in turn, may increase
the likelihood of pest and disease epidemics.

Mushita said there are great scientific uncertainties regarding the
safety of GMOs and their potential risks to the environment, health,
food and animal safety.

This, he said, calls for the precautionary principle in regulating
international trade in living modified organisms.

The other ethical concern, he said, was that most developing countries
had no biosafety regulations but were under pressure from GMO
exporting countries to implement weak biosafety regulations and to
accept GMOs through food aid.

"This calls for the region to develop collective regional policies on
food aid that address the array of potential risks in all facets of
the technology," Mushita said.

The food crisis in Africa is a result of droughts, floods, limited
access to credit, poor infrastructure, unfavourable agricultural
policies, trade policies that disadvantage poor farmers, lack of
inputs, inappropriate technologies and lack of information and
unsustainable farming practices.

There are 300 million people in Africa who are hungry and in many
cases this is due to inequitable distribution of food.

Africa must be in the driving seat when it comes to introducing new
technologies that aim to boost food security and reduce poverty.

All indicators from the Silveira House conference point to the need to
strengthen the anti-GMO movements, regional and global network for
information sharing to break the power of multinational firms and
research institutions on the continent.

In light of the controversy and public concern over GMOs, Bokor
concludes: "It is imperative that an immediate freeze on genetic
engineering on food and farming is declared throughout Africa until we
have assessed and understood all the implications for consumers,
farmers and the environment."

Copyright 2006