Hunger is a perennial challenge facing African countries, and Zambia is no exception. But while some nations are prepared to boost supplies by importing food containing genetically modified (GM) organisms, Zambia is sticking to its guns and saying no.
Once an exporter of food, Zambia is in the grip of its third severe drought since 2000. The lack of rain is threatening Zambia's food security — it needs at least 200,000 tonnes of maize to avert a crisis — which has led the United States to increase pressure on the country to legalise imports of GM food.
But Zambia's agriculture minister Mundia Sikatana says the government is staying firm on plans to develop legislation on GM products, and is reaffirming its ban on their entry into the country until it is satisfied they pose no threat to health or the environment.
In a 15 March interview to mark World Consumer Rights Day, Sikatana said Zambia would soon set up facilities for identifying GM products at all points of entry to the country to enable it to enforce the ban.
Zambia's position on GM food was made clear in 2002, when president Levy Mwanawasa rejected food aid from the United States during that year's drought and subsequent food crisis because the aid could not be confirmed to be GM free (see Famine-stricken countries reject GM maize).
In August 2002, the Zambian government banned imports, sale and use of GM products, citing health, environmental and trade concerns. The decision was based on the recommendations of a team of Zambian scientists and economists that had conducted a fact-finding mission to South Africa, Europe and the United States.
In March 2005, the government produced draft biosafety legislation that, if approved by the cabinet, will be presented to parliament for debate.
The government should not drag its feet in getting the law approved by parliament, says Muyunda Ililonga, executive secretary of the Zambia Consumers Association (ZACA). The association is worried that GM-derived products could enter Zambia illegally because some countries in southern Africa accept or, in the case of South Africa, grow GM crops.
Ililonga says Zambia needs to be able to check whether food coming in is GM or not. "We still feel that the government is not moving fast enough," he adds.
ZACA was among the civil society groups that helped launch the idea of a biosafety law. To draft the law, the government consulted with stakeholders including farmers, women's groups, church leaders, politicians, scientists and non-governmental organisations.
Ililonga feels that this diversity was representative enough for the government to make a decision that reflects public opinion.
But not all Zambians oppose GM crops. Supporters say they will bring relief to hungry Africans by improving crop yields and nutrition. They assert that citizens of rich countries, for whom the potential benefits of GM are less relevant, have exaggerated the risks posed by the technology.
Among the proponents is the Biotechnology Outreach Society of Zambia, set up in 2003 to promote acceptance of GM technology.
The society points to the 2003 findings of a team of Southern African scientists that the member nations of the Southern African Development Community had asked to investigate the potential effects of planting and eating GM crops.
The researchers concluded that GM crops pose no immediate risk to humans and animals, and advised the southern African nations to embrace the technology because of its potential to increase agricultural yields (see Southern African nations get green light on GM).
However, they also warned that potential environmental risks remain a challenge.
As a result, the team recommended that GM technologies be evaluated in African environments, and called for African nations to develop their own capacity to regulate and test GM products.
Another report, commissioned by the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflections and the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre, says, however, that GM crops would bring negligible benefits to Zambian farmers and could threaten the sustainability of agriculture in the country.
"GM crops are likely to bring many problems, including serious negative effects on the development of small-scale farming in Zambia – the basis for the country's food security system," says agricultural scientist Bernadette Lubozya, the report's author.
Lubozya's report concluded that to ensure sustainable agriculture in Zambia, rather than adopting GM crops, the country should encourage farmers to rely more on internal inputs within the farm and its immediate surroundings.
Agriculture minister Sikatana agrees, pointing out that for Zambian farmers the most pressing problem is the lack of mechanised agriculture, with many farmers still using hoes to till their land.
He says the government plans to create training centres in every district that will lease agricultural equipment to farmers.
"We shall plant and cultivate for them and recover the costs during the harvest," he explains.
Lubozya's report also warned that adopting GM technology could affect European markets for Zambian flowers, coffee, fruit, vegetables and tobacco.
Although the European Union recently relaxed its ban on GM products, authorising 26 for planting and sale, Sikatana insists that "if Zambia allows GM crops, Europe will not buy from us any more".
In the face of the current drought the government is encouraging farmers to grow alternatives to the staple maize, such as winter maize (which grows well in dry conditions) and cassava, and to irrigate their fields with water from wetlands.
Sikatana says that this will allow production to be sustained but that even optimistic forecasts suggest Zambia will only produce enough for local consumption.
As Zambia's drought continues and its fields dry up, so does its list of options for ensuring food security. But one thing is certain — the government is keeping the door to GM crops firmly closed.
Read more about gm crops in SciDev.Net's GM crops dossier.