Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Zambia Experiment: With 86 Percent of the Country below the Poverty Line, the Southern African Nation of Zambia Seems an Unlikely Candidate to Face Down the United States-And Corporate Giant Monsanto-Over Genetically Modified Seeds

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Zambia Experiment: With 86 Percent of the Country below the Poverty Line, the Southern African Nation of Zambia Seems an Unlikely Candidate to Face Down the United States-And Corporate Giant Monsanto-Over Genetically Modified Seeds

Article excerpt

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. …

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