Biosafety Policy Amendments: In Whose Interest?-25/09/2017

Zambia has been a pillar of strength and model on biosafety in the region. Many people remember famously the firm stand taken by our government against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the early 2000s. Since then, health conscious and environmentally responsible citizens throughout Africa have seen Zambia as a shining example of good leadership in sustainability and social justice.

In the last decades, biotechnology and agro-chemical corporations (Monsanto/Bayer and Syngenta/ChemChina predominately), have made exorbitant profits. They now hold global lobbying power to influence national scale policies. Working hand in hand with trade promoting institutions (including COMESA, ACETESA, ARIPO, NEPAD, and supporting agencies USAID, The Gates Foundation, amongst many others), they facilitate the expansion of neo-colonial industrial agriculture systems and extraction of Africa’s natural, economic and social resources.

Numerous countries around the world have been pressured into altering their agriculture frameworks – particularly pertaining to seed trade and biosafety – ultimately about citizen livelihoods, nutrition and economic justice. Across Africa, national biosafety legislation intended to uphold public interest, is being manipulated to facilitate the growing and consumption of GMO crops.

It now seems that Zambia is the next target. Our internationally acclaimed Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy of 2003 is set to be reviewed today – in Livingstone – by a very small select group of invited participants. Considering the contentious nature of a new draft national policy on Biotechnology, the short notice and limited nature of the consultation process, there is reason for serious concern and question of due process.

Once the National Policy is re-written, the current Biosafety Act of 2007, will also be repealed and replaced. There has been considerable demand from foreign profit oriented corporations for this process to go head – in order to remove in particular – the essential “Liability and Redress Clause”. The clause ensures that the technology manufacturer is held responsible for the negative consequences caused by their product. The standard practice in any industry ensures that if a product is defective or causes harm to humanity or the environment at large, then the manufacturer is held accountable.

The developers of GMO technology do not want to be held liable for the negative consequences of their products: including contamination of farmers own seed and agro-biodiversity; herbicide and pesticide resistance build up and poisoning of natural agro-ecosystems (pollinators, soil, water courses etc.); and the multiple health problems, particularly cancers, allergies and reproductive problems associated with GMOs and Glyphosate (RoundUp poison) use.

The pressure for Zambia to change its National Biosafety legislation comes the same year that 1) Monsanto was held on trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague and charged with crimes against humanity; 2) Court action in the US forced Monsanto to reveal the documentation it has deliberately covered up that gives evidence of the toxicity of its GM associated poison product, RoundUp. A recent report, The Toxic Story of RoundUp, “describes the origins and growth of the Poison Cartel and the ways in which these giant agri-business companies (Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Chem China, Dow, Dupont, Basf) gain and keep control of their empires, in collusion with governmental agencies; undermining independent science and our democracies”. Close to 1000 court cases have been taken out in the last year against Monsanto by people affected personally or through loss of family members from the Glyphosate caused cancer Non Hodgekins Lymphoma.

Citizens of Africa are familiar with the myths profit orientated companies use to promote GMOs. The same falsehoods will be increasingly used in Zambia. Particularly the misrepresentation that GMOs are needed to feed an increasing world population, and that GMOs are beneficial in a changing climate.

Modern biotechnology does not alter the performance of a crop nor its productivity. Change is made through the insertion of specific traits that the modified genes are designed to express. Either to be a living pesticide (e.g. Bt maize that makes its own poison) or to withstand excessive amount of toxic weed killers (e.g. the herbicide Glyphosate that is linked to causing cancer) – or a combination of both of these traits. In the modification process, gene segments are inserted into hybrid varieties of crops that are already being grown commercially. These hybrids were developed from crops originally bred over hundreds of years by famers themselves and are instead now licenced to corporations.

Productivity of a plant is dependent on a wide range of factors. Unlike local varieties that are diverse and thus still produce something even without expensive fertilizer and mechanised irrigation. Hybrid and GM varieties are bred and tested in very specific conditions. If water and fertilizers are not applied at the exact time in farmers’ fields, productivity ‘potential’ (that is what makes commercial seed so expensive), is effectively made redundant. These seeds are therefore a complete waste of money for farmers. GMOs instead lock farmers into a cycle of debt and dependency on foreign agri-businesses, whilst poisoning the soil and ground water systems, and undermining rural farming community resilience.

The modified traits in modern biotechnology are “novel”. The process does not exist in nature and this allows companies to “patent” (become the exclusive owners) of the GMO. Patents of genetic resources facilitate royalty claims and profit, as opposed to ‘development’.

Once farmers use GM crops, there is widespread contamination through cross pollination and in storage facilities. The organic market is critically constrained by this contamination. To lessen contamination the GM scientists still talk of “terminator genes” that are designed to switch off the reproductive capacity of seeds.  There is always a percentage of escape and malfunction of any technology. The concern worldwide is the spread of ‘terminator genes’ through cross pollination of crops into the wild. The consequence of its eventual effect on food availability and biodiversity is too terrible to imagine.

It is for these and numerous other reasons that Zambia has maintained the globally acclaimed ‘Precautionary Principle’ in its guiding policies.

Faith leaders, agriculture training institutions, civil society organisations, farmers and consumers alike, raise our voices in concern and distress. We support our President Mr Edgar Lungu, in his efforts to prioritise the rights of small holder farmers in Zambia, over and above foreign neo-colonial agriculture systems that extract wealth from the poor and from the country, and undermine the health of our families, our farming systems and our environment. We ask Zambia’s leaders to remain strong; to resist and reject the unjust and unethical efforts of foreign pressure to weaken national laws for the benefit of corporate profits.

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