GM ban will complicate relief efforts, aid agencies

The Zambian government's decision not to accept genetically modified (GM) relief food would complicate efforts to assist nearly three million people who need help, aid agencies said on Monday.

The Zambian government announced on Tuesday that it would stand by its August decision not to allow GM relief food into the country. This followed a fact-finding mission to South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Zambia is among six southern African countries facing critical food shortages and although 2.9 million Zambians are currently in need of food aid, this is expected to increase by March.

WFP spokeswoman Joanne Woods said: "The Zambian government has made a decision and we will respect that and will accept that it is their right to decide. But it will make our job more difficult.

"We have roughly two weeks of maize supplies at current distribution levels and will have to find alternative sources."

The WFP needs 21,000 mt of food every month to meet its requirements and during October short supplies meant it reached only half its intended recipients in Zambia. Cash donations have allowed WFP to buy about 20,000 mt of food aid but only 11,000 mt would arrive in November, the start of the most critical months," Woods said.

About 15,000 mt of GM maize has been in storage in Zambia since the government first announced its GM ban. This would probably be sent to the four countries in the region that would accept milled GM maize - Lesotho, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique - or to Swaziland which accepted GM grain.

Further supplies of food aid would only arrive in Zambia in December.

Kelvin Chiposwa, secretary-general of Red Cross Society Zambia said that NGOs treated the government's first announcement as final and immediately started sourcing non-GM maize.

"Food is trickling in but the Red Cross and other NGOs have to speed up their response because [the period from] November and December through to March is our most critical ... and we already have deficits. In December we will see if we have succeeded," he said.

Asked what the public response was to the government's announcement, he said: "People with no food are not very happy because to them food is food, whether it is GM or not."

British charity Action Aid said that the Zambian government's right to accept or reject GM food was enshrined in both food aid and biotechnology protocols. The challenge was now for the Zambian government and donors to find enough food for those in need.

"The Zambian government also needs to be open and it must say much how it needs," said spokeswoman Jane Moyo.

Peter Masunu, spokesman for the Department of Agriculture, explained the government's decision: "The Zambian government does not have the capacity to detect whether food is genetically modified, we have not yet ratified the Catagena agreement [which cover the transport and use of modified organisms] and we have no legislation in place on biotechnology and biosafety.

"Government is taking this precautionary measure to protect the local crop varieties and also feels there is a risk of losing its export market if it grows GM crops," Masunu continued. "So, as a precautionary measure, the Zambian government will not accept GM food."

In response to whether Zambia might follow Zimbabwe and allow the distribution of milled GM maize, Masunu said: "They may not distribute it in any form."

Extra measures would be taken to protect facilities currently storing GM food, following the looting earlier this month of a Cooperative League of the USA (CLUSA) storage facility. Villagers in Mumbwa, a rural town about 50-km west of the capital Lusaka, looted the shed when they were told they would not receive their usual grain supplies.

The situation would be reviewed once the government had the capacity for detection and the relevant legislation had been drafted, he said.

The government was sourcing alternative food and had already received funding from the Italian government towards this, Masunu added.