Are Africans Guinea Pigs In Genetic Research?

Jan 29, 2003 02:07 PM EST

The issue of Genetically Modified (GM) foods recently generated unpleasant exchanges between the West and Africa, when food donations from the USA to starving countries in southern Africa were found to be genetically altered. Africa accused the West of attempting to use its unfortunate population as guinea pigs in pursuit of scientific research. But what really are GM foods and why is there so much controversy around them? While seeking to answer this, AANA Correspondent Joyce Mulama highlights opinions expressed by the Church and those put forward by scientists.

In simple terms, scientists define GM foods as products of a process of genetic engineering involving artificial transfer of genes from one organism to another, in an attempt to improve yield, quality and taste.

But because the process involves interference with the natural genetic make-up of organisms, it has been viewed with lots of suspicion, particularly by third world states.

A good reference point would be the recent controversies surrounding donations of GM foods in parts of southern Africa, where a food crisis in countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland, elicited international attention.

Severe famine in the region darkened the lives of about 15 million people, forcing their governments to turn to western nations for aid. Western relief agencies are said to have responded with quick donations of foodstuffs a few months back.

These however, turned out to have been genetically modified substances, creating bitter exchanges between the affected countries and the western donors.

While the starving countries maintained their ground that they would not accept GM foods, the donors are reported to have given them ultimatums amounting to "either make use of GM foods or starve to death".

An interesting case in point is a complicated agreement signed between USA and Zimbabwe three months ago. In the agreement, Zimbabwe was expected to swap naturally grown maize with genetically modified maize from USA.

According to media reports, the agreement was to enable 17,000 tonnes of genetically modified maize from USA to be exchanged with the same quantity of naturally grown grain from Zimbabwe.

But Zimbabwe quickly made an about-turn and objected to the issue, arguing that the GM food was unfit for human consumption. In any case, Zimbabwe was faced with insufficient stocks of maize.

Zambia is also undergoing a similar experience. With its population of ten million, about 2.5 million people are facing starvation. Over 21,000 tonnes of food is required monthly to feed them.

Mid last year, President Levy Mwanawasa sent out an appeal for food aid to the international community. Again, USA donated GM maize. Regardless of the starvation, the president rejected the food, describing it as "poison".

The government then set up a commission to investigate validity of the donated GM foods, a move meant to demonstrate its concern over the safety of the population.

The commission later came up with findings that concurred with the president's rejection of the food. It described GM foods as fatal to human beings, with a high risk of interfering with the local genetic composition of maize if introduced to the soil.

An interview with a cross section of Kenyans reveals that many people do not quite understand the technology behind genetically modified foods. "All I know is that these are dangerous foods which are harmful to the body and have been introduced in the continent by the West," says one Emmanuel Rafimbi.

Others have not even heard of the term. "I have never heard of what you are asking me, what animal is it, tell me," say Benson Watambi.

Head of Research and Development at the All Africa Conference of Churches, Dr Kunijwok Kwawang feels that the technology of genetic engineering is an experiment by the west. "The process of experimenting on us has turned us into guinea pigs," he says.

"This is a continuation of the slave trade in a modern form, including slavery of the mind, where they have made us believe that West is best", he adds.

Dr Kunijwok says the long-term effect of this technology is not known and that the West is taking advantage of natural disasters in Africa such as drought and famine, to "force these foods down the throats of Africans".

He asserts that the West, who are custodians of this project are in business, and "the human-well being is not considered when people are out to make money".

Dr Kunijwok underlines the need for the African Union (AU) to come out and question on behalf of African nations, the safety of GM foods. "This is the time for AU as a voice of Africa to stand up and save its children," he notes.

Genetic engineering also lacks the backing of the Church as an entity. The bone of contention is the manipulation of genetic make-up of organisms. Christians feel that scientists are trying to 'play' God. Many argue that altering genetic composition of an organism is not the role of mankind but of God.

A senior pastor of Gospel Lighthouse Church in Kenya, Josiah Syanda says the Church has a responsibility of standing up for the rights of people and protecting lives.

"The repercussions of these foods have not yet been established... The Church has a responsibility of investigating until it is satisfied that people using GM foods are protected from destruction," says Syanda.

He says the Church must rise up and guard against any injustices. "When you manufacture a product with the intention of gaining at the expense of other people's health simply because they are hungry and poor, and do not have the machinery to verify the safety of your products, this is injustice," he observes.

But scientists differ. A biotechnologist at the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Dr Christopher Ngichabe, says genetic engineering is making rapid entry into agriculture, and that there is need for governments to disseminate information about the technology. "People need to understand that this technology has many advantages," he says.

Before the advent of this technology, Ngichabe says, there was so much spraying of crops with pesticides, irrigation and many more additional costs. "Sprays are dangerous to the environment as well as to the user. Irrigation is an expensive business. Basically, genetic engineering is a much safer, farmer friendly and an easier process," he elaborates.

He goes on: "When we are talking of food security and poverty alleviation, this technology is the way forward".

Nevertheless, some analysts are of the view that in the midst of the enthusiasm for genetic engineering, there has been almost no consideration for critical reflection on whether it is appropriate for African agricultural systems, and its implications thereafter.

By Albert H. Lee
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