The Zambia Experiment


Mutale, a 40-year-old Zambian peasant farmer, was standing in front of his two hectares of maize (corn), smiling broadly. He had just finished explaining to me that despite poor rains, he was able to raise a good crop to feed his family and to sell a bit of surplus for some extra cash to meet household needs. He looked so very different from the other farmers I had spoken to only a few days earlier. They were his neighbors, worked soil similar to his, and had experienced the same dry season. But they were not at all smiling! No good maize harvest for them.

The difference was that Mutale had planted his maize field using an organic agriculture approach, not relying on heavy doses of chemical fertilizer as his neighbors did. The organic agriculture approach - using cattle manure and decayed materials from nitrogen-rich plants such as legumes - was both much less expensive and much more efficient. During a drought season such as those Zambia has experienced periodically in recent years, it is important to keep as much moisture as possible close to the crops planted. But chemical fertilizers don’t store this moisture as does organic matter in the soil. The organic matter retains excess moisture and slowly releases it to the crop in a natural way.

The smile on Mutale’s face taught me one more important reason for the wisdom of Zambia’s rejection of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops coming into our country. There simply are plenty of alternatives to the GMO approach vigorously pushed by the United States. The U.S. government

argues that global hunger can best be dealt with by introducing GMO technologies that are supposed to increase agricultural yields. But those of us who live in Zambia and other poor countries know that the major cause of hunger is not insufficient food production but poverty and the unjust social structures of distribution and accessibility of food.

India, for example, has increased food production in recent decades, but millions of Indians still experience hunger because they are too poor to enter into agricultural production or to purchase food on the market. Moreover, unjust international structures of trade (such as subsidies on agricultural products in Northern countries) hurt farmers in the global South who need fair markets if they are to move out of poverty.

THE GMO APPROACH to agriculture departs significantly from natural ways, while claiming to be much more efficient, modern, and helpful for feeding hungry people around the world - especially in Africa. Yet the president of Zambia, in the midst of drought and severe food shortage in 2002, rejected the offer of the United States to provide maize that was genetically modified. Was that a responsible thing to do?

To answer that question we first must understand what genetic modification means. There is a very intricate technology involved in producing GMOs: A gene of very distinct origin is brought into a plant for the purpose of modifying some of the original characteristics of that plant. For example, a cotton plant could be protected from certain pests by being engineered to carry a particular gene that kills the pests. Or the gene from a fish that swims in the Antarctic waters could be introduced into a tomato plant, making the tomatoes more tolerant of cold and frost.

High technology, associated with an industrial model of agriculture (huge investments, large plots of land, sophisticated mechanization), characterizes the GMO approach. So when Zambia rejected the U.S. GMO offer - after widespread consultation with Zambian experts and foreign experts, including many from the United States - it did so with a primary concern about the impact on our agricultural infrastructure. More than 80 percent of Zambia’s food is grown by small-scale farmers like Mutale, and they would face immense problems with the introduction of GMOs. Dependency on external inputs (most GMO seed is controlled by Monsanto or other U.S. corporate giants) is just one of the difficulties.

The United States offered food aid in the form of GMO maize without offering an alternative grant for Zambia to purchase non-GMO maize that was readily available in others countries, including African countries such as Kenya. The Zambian government rightly resisted bringing in unmilled GMO maize seed (to allow people to mill it here) because of the danger that some of it would also be planted by desperate local farmers. As experience in Mexico and elsewhere has demonstrated in recent years, introduction of GMO seeds rapidly leads to a wipeout of indigenous non-GMO strains - something Zambia wanted to avoid.

Moreover, there is the question of the food safety of GMOs. This is a highly controversial topic, with scientists lining up on both sides of the question. But one argument that simply has no force at all is: "Well, we in the United States eat plenty of GMOs and look at us - we don’t suffer any ill effects!" One cannot intelligently compare the small daily intake of maize by the average American (Corn flakes for breakfast? Popcorn for a snack? Corn-on-the-cob for dinner?) with the huge daily intake of maize by the average Zambian (large servings of plain porridge several times a day when available) in a generally nutrition-deficient diet in an environment of very poor health care.

GMO advocates argue that their products can also offer inexpensive health remedies for people in poor countries. But Father Roland Lesseps, a Jesuit priest from the United States with a doctorate in biology, explained what is wrong with this argument. Lesseps has worked for almost 20 years in Zambia, training peasant farmers in sustainable agriculture techniques (such as organic farming, agro-forestry, and appropriate technology). He explained that a vitamin A deficiency is common in the diets of poor people. A GMO method to increase intake of this important vitamin is to insert into rice a gene for making beta-carotene, a substance that the body can convert to vitamin A.

But very large amounts of this modified rice would be necessary every day, and it would have to be accompanied by adequate amounts of zinc, protein, and fats - elements often lacking in the diets of poor people. So Lesseps encourages farmers to plant the so-called "vegetable tree" (moringa tree), whose leaves are rich in vitamin A as well as protein, vitamin C, iron, and calcium. Besides providing a full range of nutrients, the leaves are delicious, especially when cooked in a traditional Zambian way with powdered groundnuts. Why promote GMOs when natural alternatives are cheaper and more readily available?

SO WHY IS the U.S. government so adamant in pushing poor countries like Zambia to accept GMOs? Is it strictly a humanitarian reason - to feed the hungry? People in the United States might be shocked when they hear U.S. government officials accuse Zambian government officials, and anti-GMO advocates, of actually starving the people by their refusal to accept GMOs.

People in the United States should be more shocked to learn of the economic pressures driving the global GMO push by the U.S. government. The United States is an immense producer of GMO crops, promoted by the huge multinational seed companies such as Monsanto, and it needs ever-expanding markets for its produce. Currently the United States is in a multimillion dollar dispute with the European Union over Europe’s restrictions on importing GMO products. (For example, the EU requires the labeling of products that contain any genetically modified substance, so that people can know what they are buying - something that the U.S. government rejects.) In an increasingly globalized economy, Zambia’s refusal of GMOs is seen as a threat to U.S. dominance.

There are also religious and ethical concerns about the GMO approach. Because we humans are fellow-creatures with the rest of creation - members of the earth community - we must show due respect for the integrity of creation. Manipulation of the forces of nature through biotechnology is not a neutral or purely technical matter. It has been demonstrated to have effects on nature and continually must be subjected to ethical evaluation.

Helpful to that ethical evaluation are the principles and norms found in the church’s social teaching. These include, for example, the principles of the common good (all should benefit from advances in science), the option for the poor (special concern should be shown for the impact on the poor and vulnerable), subsidiarity (decisions should be made by those immediately affected), and solidarity (the promotion of inclusive community and not exclusive isolation). Here in Zambia, we have found that this social teaching (sometimes called the "best kept secret" of the church) provides a value-added dimension to public policy debate.

THE POLITICAL, economic, and ethical struggle to resist the imposition of GMO technology into Zambian agriculture has echoes in many other developing countries, as well as in rich countries. The Catholic bishops in the Philippines, Brazil, and South Africa have raised cautions about the introduction of GMOs. Some offices of the Vatican have recently expressed a more-favorable opinion about GMOs as a contribution to meeting the problem of world hunger. But frequently these offices have been compromised by their readiness to listen more to pro-GMO corporate and scientific voices than to the expressions of concern coming from people working with the poor in developing countries.

It is ironic that at the very moment the United States is pushing hard to spread GMO technology, many of the larger seed companies are pulling back on scientific research and production. Companies such as Syngenta, Monsanto, DuPont, and Bayer have withdrawn from GMO production in England and are reconsidering their investments in other parts of Europe. They have done this because of pressures from a concerned public and because they sense that a growing global skepticism about GMO food reliance is cutting into profits. In addition, Monsanto has been publicly embarrassed by charges that it bribed a high-level official in Indonesia to push the GMO approach there; in January Monsanto agreed to pay $1.5 million dollars in penalties to settle the case. Popular skepticism about GMO food production seems to be on the rise in the rich countries, even while the United States and the larger companies continue to sing praises for its usefulness - indeed, they tout its necessity - in poor countries.

For the time being, however, Zambia continues to honor the pledge to keep out GMOs. The country is finding that with the good agricultural practices of farmers like Mutale, the people can be fed and their health promoted, the environment can be protected, and God’s good earth can be respected.

Peter Henriot, a Jesuit priest and political scientist, directs the Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection in Lusaka, Zambia. Prior to coming to Zambia 16 years ago, he directed the Center of Concern in Washington, D.C.

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