Lusaka – The import of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) into Zambia has sparked concern among the public with consumer watchdogs calling for government intervention to sustain the country’s quest to accelerate diversification and investment to grow the agricultural sector.
The National Biosafety Authority, a government agency tasked to oversee and regulate agricultural related products - less those inclined with GMOs, has given three distributors permits to import products that might contain GMOs.
Cold Chain, Horizon and Innscor are among the 12 retailers, wholesalers and distributors that applied for new and renewal permits, have been allowed to bring into the country products with GMOs following a risk assessment.
According to NBA Chief Executive Officer, Lackson Tonga, the decision had been reached after a risk assessment conducted by the scientific advisory committee last week, which recommended the permits to the board.
Tonga, argues that the various products expected into the country were safe for humans, animals and the environment. Of the permits granted, one of the distributors had been tasked to import about 80% of the products that they initially applied for, while the other 20% had been rejected.
This was because they may contain genetically modified soybean products, which may have been made through newly developed technologies, which are not covered by the Biosafety Act.
The authority had continued its spot and compliance checks and during the operations, one distributor and four retailers were instructed to remove all the genetically modified products from the shelves.
The action by the NBA comes barely months after it banned imports of the GMO-related products with the potential to harm human and animal life, according to board chairperson, Paul Zambezi.
NBA is by law mandated to ensure that human and animal life is safeguarded. He denied reports that his organisation had by then allowed the importation of GMO foodstuffs into the country.
Only processed foods made from GMOs and genetically modified micro-organisms for diagnostics and health research purposes were allowed, NBA confirmed. The authority does not promote or prohibit GMOs but regulates their use and development.
Products that are allowed in the country that are genetically modified undergo a series of risk assessment tests, a situation that has infiltrated the country’s largest farming group.
Zambia National Farmers Union contends that the import of GMOs was a relegation from the country’s desire to promote diversification of the agricultural sector, which had prompted the majority private sector to invest in their operations as desired by the government.
Jervis Zima, the farmers’ union leader, condemned ongoing manoeuvres by some quasi-government institutions to re-introduce GMOs in the country, arguing that the action would have devastating consequences on the local market.
“ZNFU is aware of manoeuvres by certain quasi-government authorities that are trying to propagate the importation of Genetically Engineered Foods into the country. These authorities are trying to scheme ways of legitimising Genetically Modified Foods in the country at the expense of what we have safeguarded for years.”
He reminded NBA of the country’s commitment to remain GMO free and that the agency had no jurisdiction to change that.
Zima argued: “The fact that we are a non-GMO country has given us an edge over GMO crop-producing countries, which fact is known in all corners of the world.
“Being non-GMO has resulted in our farmers investing heavily in diversification into fruits and vegetables such as Macadamia nuts, Avocados, blueberries, cashew nuts and the greens, most of which are grown organically.”
The commitment by ZNFU members has, in turn, attracted international markets, such as the European Union (EU), to Zambia’s crop sector and warned that unless there was co-existence and dialogue, all the investment ploughed into diversification to move away from traditional copper mining would be in vain.
“We risk losing our non-GMO foods export niche on the international market, which has opened doors to Zambia’s fruits and vegetables, once we are labelled a GMO country. All the investments farmers and the country have made over the years will count to nothing. The diversification agenda will collapse.
“The authority does not have the capacity to police the importation of these GMOs, and they should be ready to face consequences when the country gets flooded by GMO foods. We know that as long as GMO foods start coming in, the country will soon be overridden by them.”
Zimba has since demanded a report from the NBA on how much food containing GMOs or with traces of GMOs has been allowed to land in Zambia and the companies allowed to import them.
He appealed to President Edgar Lungu to clear the matter if the diversification and non-GMO policy have been aborted.
“We are also appealing for the intervention of the Head of State, President Edgar Chagwa Lungu, over the GMO imports that are threatening to destroy our agriculture and our diversification agenda.”