Serious concerns in Africa over GMOs (7/11/2005)


Serious concerns in Africa over GMOs fuel demands for labelling and safety regulations
by Deborah Gabriel
Black Britain, 31/10/2005
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"Our position on GMOs is firstly, we want to stick to GMO free zones and secondly we want to stick to the precautionary principle of the Cartagena Protocol." - Gebremedhine Birega, Vice President of the Ethiopian Consumer Protection Association

The Cartagena Protocol

"Our message to the multi-nationals in Europe and America is that we do not want GMOs in Africa."
- Romain Abile Houehou, President, League for the Consumer Defence in Benin

At the [four-day workshop on Food Security and Biotechnology in Africa organised and hosted by Consumer International's regional office in Africa, which took place in Accra between 15 and 18 October 2005] Amadou Kanoute, Consumer International's Regional Director for Africa said that biotechnology has been touted as a way to solve Africa's problems but it is only one tool.

According to Mr Kanoute despite widespread aversion in Africa to the presence of GMOs , some countries are already researching and marketing crops and seeds for GMO production and therefore the urgency is to put a proper regulatory framework in place :

"For any new technology to benefit people we need to ensure that the benefits are boosted and the threats minimised.

Someone must be held accountable when things go wrong and products must be labelled so that consumers know what they are buying."

The Cartagena Protocol on biosafety is a global treaty that incorporates a precautionary approach to biotechnology and has provisions which address consumers' safety concerns.

Presently 125 members have signed up to the treaty including several African countries. Africa has also independently established a bio safety initiative at the African Union contained in the document: The African Model Law on Safety in Biotechnology.

Ethiopia concerned over dependency on expensive GMO seeds

During the workshop Black Britain spoke to the Vice President of The Ethiopian Consumer Protection Association, Mr Gebremedhine Birega, who represents 71 million consumers in Ethiopia. He said emphatically:

"Our position on GMOs is firstly, we want to stick to GMO free zones and secondly we want to stick to the precautionary principle of the Cartagena Protocol."

Mr Birega said that in spite of the poverty in his country farmers favour organic production, adding that Ethiopia is a centre of biodiversity for various species of plants and crops.

A major concern for Mr Birega is the absence of any labelling of GMO products. He told Black Britain: "Because of that we cannot say that Ethiopia is free from GMOs" citing Egypt, South Africa and Kenya as possible sources. He said:

We suspect that different GMO products are being brought into the country through imported food stuffs, food aid and seeds from research institutions:

"My country is one of the major recipients of food aid and the bulk of it comes from America. Of that food aid, most of it is maize, which we suspect may even be genetically modified maize."

The consumer activist told Black Britain that the USAID support to agricultural centres for the development of GMO products "causes us a great deal of concern."

Mr Birega said that the patents and intellectual property rights associated with GMO products would work against African farmers who are used to saving and exchanging seeds to use for the next season’s crops:

"Once GMO seeds are introduced our farmers will be forced to pay royalties which they simply cannot afford. That will just result in their total dependency."

He told Black Britain that consumers have a right to safe food, to retain seeds for future use and to live in a healthy environment and as long as GMO products are not labelled his organisation would be advising Ethiopian farmers and citizens to reject GMOs.

Food distribution and not production is the problem in Africa

Benin is one of Ghana's neighbours in West Africa and has a population of 7 million, one fifth of whom read and write in French. Romain Abile Houehou is the President of the League for the Consumers Defence in Benin.

He told Black Britain during an interview that his organisation has led a strong campaign to inform the country’s citizens about issues relating to GMOs through a series of publications in French.

Mr Houehou said that those who are French-literate will be knowledgeable about GMOs but "we are sure that those who read and write French have spread the message to others in villages throughout Benin."

He said that despite most consumers being relatively poor, Benin has a lot of natural produce and therefore a food shortage does not really exist. Mr Houehou said: "We do not see the need to grow genetically modified crops in our country."

He told Black Britain that although the majority of people in Benin are against GMOs, farmers are facing increasing temptation and pressure to grow GMO crops on their farms by giant multi-nationals from the USA and Europe.

At the moment there is a five-year government moratorium on the introduction of GMOs into Benin, which has two years remaining.

Mr Houehou said that the Food Security and Biotechnology workshop had proved very useful in preparing for the end of the moratorium both in terms of learning to further the campaign against GMOs and in pushing for proper legislation.

He told Black Britain that although there is a food problem in Africa, it is one of distribution rather than production which is not going to be solved by the introduction of GMOs:

"We seek to partner with all organisations across the continent and around the world that are against GMOs. Our message to the multi-nationals from Europe and America is that we do not want GMOs in Africa."


Alarm bells ring as Monsanto pushes for the launch of GM cotton in Burkina Faso

On the last day of the workshop on Food Security and Biotechnology in Africa, Consumers International arranged a press conference on hearing the news that neighbours, Burkina Faso were on the verge of accepting GMO cotton seeds from Monsanto.

Delegates expressed concern and disbelief that such a move would be made when proper testing had not been carried out. Campaigners said that an independent panel to examine GMOs is essential, given that a lot of public institution investment in research is being taken over and influenced by the biotechnology industry.

There was a lack of confidence that public institutions are carrying out independent research as the biotechnology industry has already launched a powerful campaign to lobby governments in Africa to accept GMOs.

Dr Ferdinand D. Tay, President of the Consumers Association of Ghana said that his organisation plans to be "seriously involved" in helping the government to adopt a regulatory framework for biotechnology in Ghana.

He said that his organisation has not had access to the government Bill on bio safety and their own study shows that there is "scant" information available to the public on GMos. However, he added:

"We aim to protect consumers and give them all the necessary information to make the right choice."

Mme. Salimata Diarra , representing ASCOMA in Mali, warned: "GMO crops in Burkina Faso will affect crops in Mali. We want to protect our heritage."

Leading the global campaign against GMOs for Consumer International, David Cuming told the delegates that the campaign strategy is focusing on three key objectives: labelling, bio safety legislation and prevention of contamination through the creation of GM free zones. Mr Cuming said:

"We are fighting for labelling as some countries in Africa already have GMOs but consumers have no choice in what they buy."

He stated the need for caution as biotechnology is still a relatively new technology requiring proper evaluation:

"The issue of contamination and safety still divides the scientific community. We just don't know what the future consequences will be."

The controversy surrounding GM foods

Delegates at the conference were shown a documentary by Deborah Koons Garcia entitled: The future of food: an in-depth look at the controversy surrounding genetically modified Foods.

The film was a grim warning of the possible consequences facing Africa based on how events have unfolded in the US. Countless ex-employees of Monsanto are now officials of America’s food and drug administration and environmental protection agencies.

Voluntary testing of GMOs is carried out by companies themselves and without labelling there is no traceability. The opposition to labelling is said to be prompted by a resistance to liability and accountability.

The film identified the patenting of food crops as one of the most controversial aspects of GMOs as when contamination occurs, farmers lose their markets and in the US have faced lawsuits by Monsanto for growing their patented crops without a licence.

According to the documentary, Africa is being used to promote the virtue of GMO foods by companies’ claims they can feed the starving world. But starvation has nothing to do a lack of food.

To the contrary there is an over-production of the major commodities resulting in farmers being unable to recover their production costs. Wealthy countries that use huge food subsidies to undercut poor countries add to the problem.

As part of the workshop a field trip was organised to visit farmers in Ghana. The resounding complaint was that they cannot market rice effectively any longer due to competition with heavily subsidised imported rice from the USA and Europe.

The final message from the documentary was that taking plants grown on the African continent and patenting them will be the icing on the cake for rich American companies.



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