COMMENT: ' Zambia is right to reject GM crops'

Posted: 14 March 2006

Author: Fr Peter Henriot

Last October the Zambian Government finally decided not to accept a donation of genetically modified food for nearly three million of its people facing famine. Here a Jesuit priest, working in that country argues that the decision was right. Meanwhile fresh food shortages threaten much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Mutale, a 40-year-old Zambian peasant farmer, was standing in front of his two hectares of maize, smiling broadly. He had just finished explaining that despite poor rains, he was able to raise a good crop to feed his family and 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 neighbours, worked soil similar to his, and had experienced the same dry season. But they were not 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 fertiliser as did his neighbours. The organic approach - using cattle manure and decayed materials from nitrogen-rich plants like legumes - was both much less expensive and much more efficient.

Storing moisture

During a drought season, it is important to keep as much moisture as possible close to the crops. But chemical fertilisers don't store this moisture like 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 an important reason for the wisdom of Zambia's rejection of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) coming into our country. There simply are plenty of alternatives to the GM approach being vigorously pushed by the United States.

The US government argues that global hunger can best be dealt with by introducing GM technologies that are supposed to increase agricultural yields. Yet high technology, associated with an industrial model of agriculture (huge investments, large plots of land, sophisticated mechanisation), characterises the GM approach.

More than 80 per cent of Zambia's food is grown by small-scale farmers and they would face immense problems with the introduction of GM crops. Dependency on external inputs (most GM seed is controlled by US corporate giants) is just one of the difficulties.

Pro-GM advocates argue that their products can also offer inexpensive health remedies for people in poor countries. One example is a GM rice with 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.

Vegetable tree

Fr Roland Lesseps, a Jesuit priest from the USA with a doctorate in plant biology, 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 GM crops when natural alternatives are cheaper and more readily available?

Those of us who have been involved in the debate in Zambia have also raised some religious and ethical concerns about the GM 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 its limits in terms of overall effects on nature and must continually be subjected to ethical evaluation.

Helpful to that ethical evaluation are the principles and norms found in Catholic social teaching. These include, for example, the principles of the common good (all should benefit from advances in science), option for the poor (special concern should be shown for impact on the poor and vulnerable), subsidiarity (decisions should be made by those immediately affected), and solidarity (promotion of inclusive community and not exclusive isolation).

For the time being, Zambia continues to honour a pledge to keep out GMOs. It 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.

  • The United Nations reported in February 2006, that upwards of 16 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are facing the threat of famine this spring. And the International Red Cross warned this month that recent droughts are the worst to hit the region in more than a decade, threatening at least 23 million people.

    Alongside Malawi, where as many as five million are facing the threat of famine,areas of Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia and Burundi and Zambia are also affected.

    In Zambia, the Red Cross says food rations will be distributed to 32,000 people. Packs of wheat, vegetable seeds, beans and fertilizers will be distributed to 5,000 families in Lesotho and 3,000 families in Zambia. Thousands of families have received similar agricultural packs in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Swaziland. But more funds are needed.

Source: Fr Heriot's article is taken from Interact magazine (Winter 2005/6. It is a shortened version of the original which first appeared in Sojourners magazine. It was distributed by Third World Features. Fr Henriot is a Jesuit priest and political scientist. and director of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection in Lusaka, Zambia.