The GM Debate in Zambia (16/5/2005)

2.The Rise and Fall of the GM Debate in Zambia
3.Zambia builds high-tech lab to detect GM food imports


The second article below - The Rise and Fall of the GM Debate in Zambia by Zarina Geloo - has been widely circulated on pro-GM listservs but there are good reasons for treating some of its claims with a degree of caution.

The article is published by the Panos Institute in London, which provides an information service specialising in issues for developing countries. Panos has an agenda of encouraging "informed and inclusive debate" and when the GM food-aid crisis hit Zambia in 2002, Panos put forward the view that the "heated and difficult" debate over the issue was "tending to drown out the voices in favour" of GMOs.

The services and perspective that Panos offers have attracted powerful support. In 2004 the British government's Department for International Development entered into a partnership with PANOS worth over a million pounds in its first year, with a possibility of a further 5 years of similarly generous funding. Panos also attracts generous funding from major US foundations, like the Ford Foundation.

This pattern of support has been reflected in Zambia where Panos has been funded to carry out a "programme of initiatives... to raise public understanding and stimulate public debate in Zambia on the issues surrounding genetically modified organisms" by the Rockefeller Foundation. As Panos itself acknowledges, the Rockefeller Foundation "is in favour of informed, constructive use of GM technologies."

Panos claims its activities in Zambia have been conducted entirely independently of its sponsor but the article below (item 2), although written by a Zambian journalist, very much reflects the Panos line on the GM issue in Zambia. The article argues that the GM debate in Zambia has failed to be inclusive enough and that pro-GM voices have been drowned out. It suggests that the decision to reject GM food aid as well as any debate over GM in Zambia have been essentially dominated and controlled by the Zambian government, which "cranked up its propaganda machinery" and so drew the Zambian public and the country's civil society along in its wake.

In support of this view of opposition to GMOs being essentially government driven, the article states, "Even some well-known critics of the government, such as the Women's Lobby Group, the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) and opposition political parties, went along with the official stand."

But, in fact, organisations like the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection were so far from merely going "along with the official stand", that they were the focus of ferocious attack from the GM lobby which accused them of engaging in "Activist Scare Tactics" in support of an anti-GM agenda, etc.

Similarly, the claim of a radio journalist quoted in the article that, "There is so much anti-GM feeling that those who are pro-GM are scared of public opinion and keep quiet," seems somewhat at odds with the fact that a GM lobby group - the Biotechnology Outreach Society of Zambia - has not only been launched in Zambia since the 2002 crisis but has clearly been been getting its views across to journalists, as can be seen, for instance, in a recent article on Zambia and its stance on GMOs by the award-winning Zambian journalist, Brenda Zulu.

The Panos article is perhaps at its most questionable in the way in which it seeks to create the impression of a significant alternative voice on the GM issue in the farming community that is being ignored. Thus, the article contrasts reports critical of the impact of GMOs on farmers with "a study by the Zambian National Farmers Union, 'Agricultural Biotechnology and Biosafety in Zambia: A ZNFU Position Paper for Input into Government Policy and Legislation'" which outlined "some potential benefits of GM crops".

This would seem to imply that ZNFU's position is, in part at least, pro-GM. But that's not the case. The paper in question outlines what are said to be the potential pros and cons of the technology. It does not in any way promote a pro-GM position or draw pro-GM conclusions.

In the light of what seemed to us a misleading account of the ZNFU's position, GM Watch got in contact with a Zambian who had until recently worked for the ZNFU to gain his impression of the article. It turned out that not only did he disagree with the impression given of the Union's position but that he specifically remembered the journalist who wrote the article "sending an e-mail with a request to interview someone at the union over the GMO issues. My boss... was not in the office , so i set a date for her to come to talk to me. She never did."

The article concludes by quoting two subsistence farmers whose views happen to coincide precisely with the Panos line. The article says that they "feel they should have been given information to make an informed choice". And they go on to express an interest in what the technology may have to offer. (Remember the Rockefeller line promotes "informed, constructive use of GM technologies")

By way of contrast, according to PELUM ZAMBIA - - which works with the small scale farmers who actually produce 75% of Zambia's agricultural produce, "very few small-scale have expressed any willingness to adopt this technology".

What adds irony to the situation, of course, is the fact that while Panos, and this article, proclaim the right to informed choice in Zambia, poll after poll shows that the majority of American citizens remain almost entirely unaware of the scale on which this technology has been introduced into US agriculture or even that much of what they are eating contains genetically modified ingredients.

It seems, therefore, somewhat naive to, on the one hand, condemn the Zambian government for what, in part, appears to amount to little worse than (a) having successfully put across its viewpoint and (b) being in agreement with many of its usual critics, while on the other hand completely ignoring the fact that successive administrations in the massively powerful country Zambia has found itself up against have (deliberately!) failed to offer American citizens an informed choice. And where, come to that, is the concern that America's corporate media has stimulated so little by way of debate on this issue?

The Panos article ends with the two subsistence farmers saying that "if what they hear about drought-resistant GM maize is true, then it should be made available to farmers like them who suffer from drought. 'Again, it's people in Lusaka [Zambia's capitol] making decisions on our behalf.'"

The problem with this is that the article fails to make clear two key points: (a) that the GM maize that the Zambian government rejected was not "drought-resistant" and (b) that, in fact, there is no drought-resistant GM maize available for these farmers to grow - it's an untried and untested development, which may be available at best many years in the future but is certainly not being denied to them now.

This typifies the problems with an article that seems to reflect either a troubling naivety or else a desire to make the facts fit a preconceived agenda.


There have been several assertions about the potential of GMOs to feed a hungry and poor world through the increase of yields through better crop management, with low inputs. It argued that the technology is the new silver bullet of this


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