The citizens of Zambia, have repeatedly stated their absolute objection to Modern Biotechnology and the production of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Today, this position is reiterated as we support the global call for a moratorium on Gene Drive releases, including applied research such as open field trial releases, until there is further understanding of the potential risks and technical issues. We request our National Representatives to do the same at the upcoming 14th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Convention on Biological Diversity due to take place in Sharm El -Sheikh, Egypt 17-29 November 2018.
The global meeting in Egypt will discuss new and highly controversial genetic engineering technologies. Extreme and invasive forms of Genetic Modification (next generation GMOs) under the umbrella term of Synthetic Biology, are being rapidly developed and commercialised. Significant economic disruption is expected especially on the economies, livelihoods and biodiversity of countries in the Global South[i]
Synthetic Biology is currently globally unregulated and categorically undermines the Precautionary Principle and Human Rights for free, prior and informed consent. Proponents of Synthetic Biology – big agro-food and pharmaceutical corporations, together with philanthropic capital – are pushing for African countries to accept this new technology. The premature push absolutely disregards the unknown risks and long term effects on whole ecosystems and human populations.
Today, ZAAB has released an open letter to the delegates who will represent the people of Zambia at the upcoming global meetings (The Convention on Biological Diversity COP 14 and Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety COP-MOP 9). The open letter calls for the Zambian representatives to uphold the best interests of the people of Zambia, who have continually stated their outright objection to the use of genetic engineering.
“We raise our concern regarding the considerable unknown risks associated with new SynBio technologies; the inability to contain organisms following both field trial and commercial releases, the inability to regulate trans-boundary movement of Gene Drive Organisms (GDOs); the issues surrounding monitoring, assessment and liability; and the need for free, prior and informed consent.
We therefore call on you to uphold the best interests of Zambia, her citizens and her environment and future generations. Africa has been the site of foreign and corporate exploitation for many years, and synthetic biology poses an extreme new era of manipulation and control”[ii].
What is Synthetic Biology?
The umbrella term, Synthetic Biology, (i.e. artificial / unnatural) describes next generation genetic engineering tools that facilitate and accelerate the “design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems” (CBD operational definition)[iii].
Techniques incorporate DNA/RNA synthesis (building DNA/RNA from scratch in the lab), sequencing, Genome Editing and Gene Drives. The results enable designing and making biological components or ‘parts’, altering organisms’ genetic sequences and modifying living organisms with new synthetic traits for agricultural or ecosystem changes.
What are Gene Drives?
Gene Drives are artificial genetic traits inserted into the DNA of a sexually reproducing organism. This creates a new Gene Drive Organism (GDOs). GDOs are designed to pass on a specific engineered trait to all their offspring. By releasing a few organisms, an artificial trait can be deliberately spread throughout an entire population, either to alter the population or cause it to crash (die out).
The logic behind new technologies?
The logic of synthetic biology, gene drive or genetically modified organisms, in agriculture relies on the continued deception that exceedingly complex problems in the food system can be resolved simply by new high-tech innovations.
Industry claim is that new technologies could make some agricultural or human pests go extinct, reduce pesticide use, and speed up plant breeding and synthetic production of food. The risks associated with this new and rapidly developing technology have not been measured nor the public consulted.
“The potential for the creation of invasive GDOs capable of spreading engineered genes in the wild takes one of the worst scenarios envisaged for genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and turns it into a deliberate industrial strategy. While first generation GMOs mostly spread engineered genes by accident, GDOs will be designed to do their own engineering among wild populations out in the real world. Their spread to those populations would be deliberate. Scientists behind gene drives have only just begun to ask what would happen if the genes aren’t quite as well behaved as their Mendelian models intended. What if genes for female sterility, for instance, which have been shown to eliminate mosquito populations in the lab, transferred to species that pollinate our crops or are a food source for birds, reptiles, even humans? What if genes that were beneficial became disabled, or if genetic disruption increased the prevalence or altered patterns of diseases? (ETC Group, Forcing the Farm, 2018).
The ongoing undermining of Zambia’s ‘no-GMO’ position
Citizens of Zambia have always been strongly opposed to the use of modern biotechnology to produce GMOs. Government leaders have supported this position. In 2017 however, the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) called an initial review meeting of the National Biosafety Policy, that is in-fact recognised as a model policy by countries around the world. The initial proposed amendments were specifically in interest of weakening the Precautionary Principle and removing clauses related to liability and redress (i.e. owner pays for problems incurred). The original, alarmingly small and exclusive meeting held by the NBA in September 2017, Livingstone, was dominated by NEPAD/ AU and COMESA representatives.
The AU has recently released a very premature endorsement of Gene Drive technology and the imminent release of GM mosquitoes in Burkina Faso. The first Live Modified Organisms (LMOs) to be realised on the Africa continent, despite the significant public outcry.
The ZAAB is highly alarmed by the close relationship between the Zambian NBA, the AU and other regional trade groups, who seem to be driving our Zambian agenda. The AU / NEPAD and COMESA have a clear bias towards the promotion of genetic engineering and facilitating increased corporate concentration in African food systems, that disregard public demands, local livelihoods and the long term economic interest of African states.
Citizens around the world have fought for decades against powerful corporations that dominate public discussion and sway regulations to favour profit over people’s best interest.
Up until this last year, Zambia has remained strong in upholding its citizens’ position that Zambia is a No-GMO country. The ongoing review process by the National Biosafety Policy is extremely concerning, especially given the very biased pro-GMO agenda that has been the undercurrent of discussions thus far and seemingly aimed at completely altering the national position.
The public still awaits further communication from the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology, that is overseeing the National Policy review process.
We, the members to the Zambia Alliance for Agroecology and Biodiversity, and citizens of Zambia, call on our National representatives to uphold the best interests of the people and not be swayed by the powers of multinational corporations and their foreign policy allies.
[i] www.synbiogovernance.org (ACB, TWN and ETC Group)
[ii] ZAAB, Open Letter to the Zambian Delegation to The Convention on Biological Diversity COP 14 and Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety COP-MOP 9, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, 17 – 29 November 2018)
[iii] www.synbiogovernance.org (ACB, TWN and ETC Group)