Zambia's GM Food for Refugees Policy in Disarray

By Dickson Jere

LUSAKA, Zambia, September 11, 2002 (ENS) - Confusion reigned Wednesday over Zambia's policy against distributing genetically modified (GM) grain from the United States to parts of the population affected by a severe hunger crisis, after claims by a United Nations humanitarian agency that it received the go-ahead to deliver GM maize to refugees.

The Zambian government reacted fiercely to reports that the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) had been instructed to distribute 6,000 tons of transgenic maize to some 130,000 refugees, mostly from Angola and Democratic Republic of the Congo, living in camps in the north and west of the country.


Interior Minister Luckson Mapushi (Photo courtesy The Post)
"It is...not correct for the WFP to indicate categorically that they have been allowed to feed refugees with GM food," said Interior Minister Luckson Mapushi. "We will withdraw the GM foods from refugee camps and replace them with non-GM food," he warned.

World Food Programme chief James Morris, who is touring the starving southern African region, announced earlier this week that the Zambian government had opened the way for distribution of GM food at the camps. WFP spokesperson Richard Lee confirmed Wednesday that, "It was our clear understanding from guidance from [the] Zambian government that WFP could continue to distribute from stocks already at six refugee camps."

Lee said the agency was told that it could distribute GM foods at the camps provided that the grain was milled. "However, because of recent reports, we are awaiting written instructions from government on how they would like to proceed," Lee continued.

The government of President Levy Mwanawasa last month rejected about 27,000 tons of GM food aid donated by the U.S. government to feed nearly one quarter of Zambia's population currently struggling to cope with a sharp reduction in crop yields caused by a prolonged drought.


World Food Programme chief James Morris visits Zambia's Chilanga Hospice and Children's Day Care Centre. September 9, 2002 (Photo WFP/B. Barton)
At that time, the government said it would only allow consumption of GM food after it had been proven safe for both humans and the environment.

Pledging to ensure that GM food stocks at the camps are removed, Mapushi said, "The position of government rejecting GM [food] was a national one which applies to all categories of persons living in Zambia. This applies to refugees, including those living in camps."

Some humanitarian workers have expressed concern that withdrawal of the food aid without any swift and adequate replacement would worsen conditions in the camps where refugees had been living on half rations until June when donors stepped up their contributions.

Zambia hosts more than 300,000 refugees from neighboring countries, making it the main receiving country in the region.


Workers stack bags of maize at a state owned mill in Zambia (Photo courtesy FAO)
Zambia is the only country in the southern Africa region affected by the food crisis that has rejected GM food aid. Zimbabwe and Mozambique earlier rejected the U.S. genetically modified foods, but those governments have reversed themselves to accept the food aid in the face of their millions of hungry citizens.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 13 million people are in need of food assistance in coming months to avoid widespread starvation in the region.

A statement from three United Nations agencies August 27 attempts to reassure consumers that GM foods are safe. The World Health Organization, the FAO and the WFP said they hold the view that "the consumption of foods containing GMOs now being provided as food aid in southern Africa is not likely to present human health risk. Therefore, these foods may be eaten."

On Tuesday, the Japanese government announced that it has given Zambia US$3 million to purchase maize to avert starvation. Mitsuhiro Saotome, Japan's ambassador to Zambia, said in a statement that the funds, provided through the World Food Programme, will buy 8,151 tons of maize.

{Published in cooperation with the OneWorld Network.}