Zambia Feeds Refugees on Transgenic U.S. Corn

By Singy Hanyona

LUSAKA, Zambia, September 10, 2002 (ENS) - The Zambian government and World Food Programme (WFP), have agreed to feed over 130,000 refugees from war-torn neighboring countries with genetically modified food aid from the United States.

The decision comes a month after the Zambian government categorically refused to accept the transgenic maize [corn] for its own starving people who are suffering the worst drought in a decade.


James Morris, the United Nations Special Envoy for the humanitarian crisis in Southern Africa holds a Zambian boy. (Photo courtesy WFP)
Visiting WFP Executive Director James Morris, confirmed in Lusaka Monday that the government has allowed his organization to start distributing genetically modified (GM) maize to refugees in six refugee camps.

"They have given us permission to feed refugees here in Zambia. "Government was very thoughtful about it, and we are now feeding about 130,000," Morris told journalists here.

Zambia is host to over 320,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Angola, countries that have been racked by civil wars for years.

The government's decision has been met with opposition from nongovernmental organizations, who cite the danger of seed spillage to small farmers for planting in the next season.

The Green Living Movement, a local environmental pressure group, expressed concern that there must be careful handling of the maize in the process of feeding the hungry.

"In the first instance, why feed GM food to refugees only. Are they not human beings? "Don't they have the right to good health?" asked Green Living Movement director Emmanuel Mutamba.


Bag of U.S. donated maize heads up a conveyor belt directly into a truck at Beira, Mozambique, ready for the next link in the WFP food chain, transfer to the local railway station. (Photo WFP/Richard Lee)
Some scientists warn that genetic manipulation can increase the levels of natural plant toxins or allergens in foods, or create new toxins in unexpected ways by switching on genes that produce poisons to repel insect pests. People with food allergies may be harmed by exposure to foreign proteins spliced into common foods such as maize.

Morris, who is on a tour of the hunger-stricken countries of Southern Africa - Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia, said Zimbabwe has now approved genetically modified maize for its people after months of refusing to accept it.

Morris said the condition is that the maize be milled into mealie meal before being allowed to enter both Zambia and Zimbabwe.

"In Zambia's case, the maize will be ground through hammer mills in refugee camps, to avoid it spilling over to nearby communities," said Morris.

But the Zambian government still insists that the genetically modified maize would not be distributed to all of the 2.3 million starving people in Zambia.


Leonard Ndaba is one of Zambia's many orphans. He lives in Mgwezi with his uncles where lack of rain has caused a crop failure. (Photo courtesy IFRC)
The government maintains it will not accept genetically modified maize for economic reasons, apart from the uncertainty over its safety for human consumption.

Vice President Enock Kavindele, who led the Zambian delegation in a meeting with WFP officials, said there is no malice in government's rejection of the maize.

He said the reason is not purely scientific, but for fear of local farmers losing markets for their products in Europe where consumer resistence to genetically modified foods is widespread.

Wind, rain, birds, bees, and insect pollinators can carry genetically altered pollen from fields of transgenic crops into adjoining fields, where it can change the DNA of natural crops. Once released, genetically engineered organisms cannot be called back.

"We do not want to take risks," said Kavindele. "Zambia is now focusing on agriculture as the mainstay of the economy, because of problems with the copper industry," he said.

Kavindele said Zambia respects the decision of its neighbors Malawi and Zimbabwe on genetically modified foods, taking into account that the two countries have made a U-turn, by accepting the genetically modified food.

Due to worsening hunger situation in Zambia, the United Nations is considering bringing in non-GM wheat and an additional 12,000 tons of non-GM maize from South Africa.

"We do business with 83 countries in the world, but I do not know what quantities of wheat are coming to Zambia," said the World Food Programme's Morris.

Last week at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa said government was is considering sending a team of experts to the United States to learn and assess the safety of genetically modified foods.

According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. corn farmers planted genetically modified seeds on 19.8 million acres in 2001, about 26 percent of the total corn acreage.