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  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

An “evidence and communications stalemate” regarding GMOs in Zambia

An important question for researchers to ask themselves is what factors affect how evidence is used in policy debates – in other words, the politics of evidence-based policymaking. This is precisely what ODI and the Mwananchi program decided to look into through their Politics of Research-based Uptake in African Policy Debates. This post describes their case study in Zambia on this country’s acceptance of genetically modified organisms (GMOs); in it, the debate regarding GMOs is framed by evidence, but since there is no Zambia-specific evidence and no communication from the Zambian government, there is an “evidence and communications stalemate”, which in turn is highly influenced by international actors motivated by financial motives.

What sparked and framed the debate was Zambia’s decision not to accept US food aid shipments containing GMOs during the 2002-2003 famine.  Actors involved in it were not only local but regional, including organisations like the African Union, the Southern African Confederation of Agricultural Unions, etc., which were in favour of GMOs in Africa.  Other actors in favour were those who could benefit economically from these agricultural products, such as biotechnology companies, agencies who pursued foreign interests, like USAID and WPF, and farmers whose income would be enhanced by GMOs. These groups were supported by national and international scientists. Those against included international, regional and local environmental groups such as Greenpeace; and some policy research institutes.

While the debate was framed by development narratives such as human rights and national ownership, much of the research-based evidence being cited in support of GMOs was private sector-financed. The private sector endeavoured to control the way which GMO information was presented to the public. For instance, Zambia-specific evidence on GMOs is reliant on international research, which has been criticised for being biased favourably towards GMOs in its data selection.  It also worked alongside those international agencies mentioned interested in fomenting GMOs, such as USAID.

Policymakers and the general public lacked prior access to information regarding GMOs, and information more readily available was channeled by these private sector and international agencies. Thus, those actors with more resources were the ones able to structure the policy debate. These actors endeavoured to be seen as holders of scientific evidence that present the truth, while opponents to GMOs were seen as irrational, despite being better able to refer to evidence on both sides of the debate, since their arguments were deemed ‘unscientific’. Groups like the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre want to bring the debate back to questions on impact and sustainability that address whether or not GMOs are sustainable in the Zambian agricultural context; in short, whether they should be allowed in the country or not. Nonetheless, questioning GMOs, in spite of there not being a scientific consensus on their effects, is seen by pro-GMO groups as disruptive and going against technological developments:

“To Getachew Belay of the Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa, the debate in Zambia – and the COMESA region in general – has not moved on because of a lack of understanding and mobilisation of those who oppose GMOs, leading to the persistence of existing worries. These groups are described in terms which suggest they are derailing the righteous – and of course inevitable – path of science”.

An example of how actors relevant to the policy debate are influenced by this use of evidence is the case of the leadership of the Zambian National Farmers Union. It was seen in 2001 as heavily influenced by the GMO lobby, as reflected by a series of pro-GMO technology articles in their monthly publication, The Zambian Farmer. ZNFU has received a significant amount of funds from the Finnish and Dutch governments and project funding from USAID, from which they are petitioning funds to support a biotechnology roadmap that clearly shows their support for GMOs. This Union has also been the target of positive information regarding GMOs by the US government and by private sector companies.

Zambian farmers are afraid that they will lose out economically if Zambia does not keep up with technological change, which ultimately means adopting genetically modified organisms. Opponents to GMOs believe that this fear is a result of the propaganda employed by pro-GMO groups, which equates “modern” with what is best for the country.

The paper concludes that the use of evidence in the GMO policy debate in Zambia was selective, and used with the intention of supporting a position formed prior the revision of evidence.  Since both sides of the debate have not reached an agreement on what the debate should be about and see each other as not acting in good scientific faith, there is now an “evidence stalemate” in Zambia regarding GMOs and no concrete policy has been implemented. To the author, evidence selection based on economic interests is unsurprising and logical: the emphasis within international circles on communication, persuasion and evidence-based policy lends itself to the use of partisan evidence in order to achieve maximum impact.

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