Farmers' perceptions and expectations of genetic engineering in Zambia
Kazhila Chinsembu & Tamal Kambikambi
Keywords:  Zambia, Genetic Engineering, Small-scale faremrs, Public acceptance
Correct citation: Chinsembu, K. & Kambikambi, T. (2001), "Farmers' perceptions and expectations of genetic engineering in Zambia." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 47, p. 13-14.

The process of building public awareness about the implications and potential uses of biotechnology is just beginning in Zambia. At the moment there is considerable discussion about whether genetically modified crops can boost the country's crises ridden agricultural economy. However, as this article shows, the country's farmers, policy makers and consumers suffer from the consequences of a chronic lack of information.

The language of biotechnology is not common in Zambia. A radio talk show just revealed that the public is essentially ignorant about current issues that underpin the use of biotechnology in agriculture. Among important stakeholders such as farmers, government officials and researchers, there is an emerging perception that biotechnology is synonymous with genetic engineering. This misconception is hardly surprising given the pressure to introduce genetically modified (GM) crops in Southern Africa. The danger, however, is that such perceptions may stunt the development of other biotechnologies that could make positive contributions to agricultural and rural development. At present, there is fragmented information about the implications of biotechnology for local agriculture and regional and international export markets.

Zambia's population is close to 10 million. Of the 42 million hectares of arable land, only six per cent is cropped annually. The farming community is highly differentiated, ranging from large-scale commercial farmers who traditionally produce for export, to small-scale resource-poor farmers who produce over 80 per cent of the country's maize, the staple food crop. Despite its rich natural resources Zambia is intensely poor agriculturally and the average local maize production of 14 million bags per season cannot satisfy national demand. This forces the government to import maize from countries such as Canada, Argentina and the USA where GM crops have already been commercialized.

Food security and higher yields

Attempts are being made to improve household food security and increase crop productivity. Most Zambian farmers grow Open Pollinated Varieties (OPVs). They cannot afford to buy the fertilizers and pesticides required for hybrid varieties so their own seed resources are important to them. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) supports this sector with an OPV breeding programme. At the same time, crop improvement research programmes have concentrated on conventional breeding for higher yields and insect pest and disease resistance. Public researchers at Mount Makulu Agricultural Research Station and Golden Valley Agricultural Research Trust (GART) have produced new maize, sorghum and millet hybrids that have been approved by the Seed Control and Certification Institute (SCCI). With the support of the Swedish International Development Agency(SIDA), most of these hybrids are now commercially produced by local seed companies.

However, since the liberalization of the economy in 1991 when President Frederick Chiluba's Movement for Multi-party Democracy(MMD) government came into power, the agricultural sector has been left to the whims of market forces. Zambia now hosts several foreign multinational seed companies, most of which originate in South Africa. Some Zambian farmers have been seduced into overlooking traditional production constraints such as access to credit, inputs, research and extension services and have started to see GM crops as a silver-bullet solution that will lead to increased agricultural production and provide an enviable competitive edge. Members of the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) hope to leap-frog into the regional and international export market with crops such as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton, Bt maize and nicotine-free tobacco.

Although there are some dissenting voices amongst farmers exporting to the GM-free European market, most are more worried about the health of the market than the environmental, biodiversity and health issues that have been raised in connection with GM crops in other parts of the world. As one commentator remarked: "We watched the industrial and green revolution trains pass us by. We have yet to cross the information technology digital divide. Now is the time to get on the gene revolution train, lest we remain behind forever."

The euphoria and public debate about biotechnology that has swept other parts of the world has not yet hit Zambia. The extension services and education system lack the capacity and trained personnel to bring farmers up to date with developments in agricultural biotechnology, and genetic engineering in particular. There are no serious awareness campaigns to inform stakeholders about this new technology and even at university level there are no courses in biotechnology. The media has stepped in to fill the gap, but many journalists have no access to reliable information. The internet is unreliable or non-existent even for those working on the major national newspapers and journalists lack contact with specialists who could keep them in touch with what is going on in the region and internationally. This has created a situation where the agricultural sector as a whole is vulnerable to misinformation and the opinions circulated by those with vested 'pocket' agendas, a phrase commonly used in Zambia to mean 'having hidden, selfish interests'.

No policy, no regulations

The Zambian government has been caught off-guard because there are no effective biosafety regulations. A Cotton Trust run by Dunavant (USA) engages local farmers in out-grower schemes, and also has a research component. Recently, and without the knowledge of the farming community or other key stakeholders, Bt cotton was grown for one season in trials at the organization's fields in Magoye in Zambia's southern agricultural belt. Later, without any announcement or further information, these trials were discontinued, ostensibly because of a lack of biosafety legislation.

At the University of Zambia, a plant pathologist in a sub-regional collaborative project with the European Union (EU) has made a proposal to screen GM Fusarium wilt resistant maize from South Africa and naturally resistant local cultivars. However, the Phyto-Sanitary Section (PSS) is reluctant to let her conduct field trials with GM maize in the absence of national biosafety legislation. There are two main points of concern. Firstly, GM maize field trials may endanger local staple food production through genetic pollution. Secondly, GM maize may genetically contaminate baby corn and result in the loss of the EU export market where there is a moratorium on the commercialization of GM food crops.

Although officials at SCCI have no capacity to test for it, they believe that GM seed (in addition to the Bt cotton planted in Magoye) is already in Zambia. A few years ago, when Zambia suffered severe drought due to the El Nino effect, yellow maize alleged to be of a GM variety was imported into the country. Traces of this yellow maize was subsequently found in the white maize harvested by rural farmers reducing its appeal to consumers and its price on the local market.

It is, therefore, important that farmers know when they are using GM seed and understand that, to ensure safety, it has to be cultivated in a different way. Some attempts have been made to this end. A non-governmental organization (NGO), Programme Against Malnutrition (PAM), trains small-scale farmers in seed multiplication for village food security. PAM and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) organized a workshop for farmers early this year on village food security, biotechnology and GM crops. It discovered that many farmers knew little about GMOs and saw them as 'bugs' or 'monsters' that could have mysterious effects on those who consumed them.


Current phyto-sanitary law is unable to address the concerns of scientists, farmers and policy makers about GMOs. Edward Zulu, a seed systems specialist at SCCI jokes that there is no legal basis to deny entry permits for GM seed or plant materials. Dr. Bernadette Lubozha, a research branch representative on the national biosafety committee is opposed to GMOs. As an oil seed plant breeder interested in conservation of wild cotton, she argues that Bt cotton genes from the Magoye trials could have already polluted wild relatives. Cross pollination with unmodified cotton or other oil seed plants like castor oil could ruin Zambia's EU exports. She blames the hurried introduction of Bt cotton in Magoye on political interference by Ministers who are 'convinced' by sales representatives from GM seed companies.

The real dilemma in Zambia is that there is no institutional capacity or framework to deal with the unfolding political and scientific issues related to GM products. Ecologists are particularly worried about the potential effects of GM crops on local land races. Zambia does not have the research capacity to assess biodiversity loss especially that of local agricultural genetic resources. Meanwhile, the Zambia Biosafety Committee confronts the enormous task of drawing up biosafety regulations with very limited facilities at their disposal to complete their work.

Currently, public awareness of biotechnology is disappointingly low. Reasons for this include illiteracy, lack of interest in scientific issues, a media dominated by politics as Zambians prepare to go to the polls to elect a new President, lack of investment in science, research and development and a total absence of any dialogue on science policy.

There are no initiatives to highlight issues of environmental safety, food chain contamination, antibiotic resistance, allergies and immune impairment, to policy makers, who have responsibility for securing the safe use of biotechnology in agriculture. Avenues for scientists to disseminate information to the public are not available. In a country sunk in poverty due to economic mismanagement by its political leadership, there is little room for science and research. It would be wise for those who feel they cannot resists the 'fatal attraction' of GM crops to remember the old Zambian adage: "If you have to test the depth of a river, do not put both legs into the water."

Kazhila Chinsembu* & Tamala Kambikambi**

Department of Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering. * Department of Biological Science; ** Department of Crop Science; University of Zambia, P.O. Box 32379, Lusaka, Zambia. Phone/Fax +206 1 294 806; E-mail kchinsembu@netscape.net, tkambika@agric.unza.zm

"Biotechnology and agriculture", Bi-weekly Farmers' Radio Programme, Radio Phoenix and PALESA News Agency, P.O.Box 33805, Lusaka, Zambia, and the Zambia National Farmers Union, May-June 2001. palesa@zamnet.zm

Speedwell Mupuchi (2001) "Farmer discusses genetically engineered crops", Farmers' Voice, The Post, 21 September 2001, Lusaka, Zambia.

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with  acknowledgement of source.


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