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africa: monitoring the introduction of gmos

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) entering African countries pose a growing risk to human health, the environment and poor farmers’ food security. Their governments are under major pressure to introduce GMOs from multinational corporations, which argue (despite lacking evidence) this will improve food security. Africans are also vulnerable to introduction of GMOs through food aid, from donor agencies such as USAID.

 

gmo africaThis threat is exacerbated by a lack of legal, administrative and infrastructural frameworks to resist or regulate these products. For example, Cameroon has had biosafety legislation in place since 2003, but these laws are too weak to prevent GMOs’ entry. In Swaziland, the gap left by famine and a complete regulatory vacuum is filling up with donated food aid containing GMOs. In addition, awareness amongst the public about GMOs and the risks they pose is, generally speaking, low in this region.

Friends of the Earth Cameroon (Centre for Environment and Development), Ghana, Mali (Guamina), Nigeria (Environmental Rights Action), Sierra Leone, Togo and Swaziland (Yonge Nawe Environmental Action Group) aimed to address this risk because, as Edith Abilogo of FoE Cameroon said, “the need for measures to control, inspect and detect GMOs cannot be overemphasised.”

what happened: Most groups conducted testing for GMOs on samples of crops and food, including those sourced from food aid. In addition, some groups, such as Nigeria and Swaziland, developed regimes to build capacity for further testing in future.

As a result, many of the groups found GMOs in their food supply. For example, FoE Nigeria tested a total of 108 samples selected from Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Ghana; of these, six samples from Nigeria and one from Ghana were contaminated with GMOs. According to FoE Nigeria, “These results obtained from the project underscore the fact that the African continent has become a target for contamination.”

Some groups, including FoE Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Swaziland used their testing results to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the current laws and to influence legislation, and carried out lobbying with parliamentarians and policy makers. Many of the groups also used these test findings as an opportunity for media work, to counter some governments’ denial of GMOs in their food supply.

The groups also sought to raise awareness by holding workshops, seminars, courses, meetings and even conferences about the risks posed by GMOs, in both rural and urban areas. FoE Nigeria also started a newsletter about food, agriculture and GMOs titled “hot plate”. FoE Ghana developed a brochure on GMOs, FoE Swaziland created a 30-minute documentary and radio program, and FoE Cameroon produced a very successful cartoon book for youth. FoE Sierra Leone made use of television, radio and even public wall murals for its campaign.

Although FoE Mali didn’t carry out GMO testing, it did conduct workshops to generate debate amongst all sectors of civil society, to allow them to better understand GMOs’ risks and international laws that govern them.

what is changing: Most groups reported that public awareness on GMOs had increased among the grassroots, opinion leaders, community leaders, farmers and market women; and that grassroots resistance to GMOs was building up. Sustainable agriculture was encouraged, and community leaders were empowered to make informed technological choices.

FoE Mali’s awareness-raising workshops successfully conveyed this complex subject to participants. The ensuing debates helped the group formulate an action plan, and government officers committed themselves to support peasant organizations as this action plan is implemented.

FoE Swaziland’s new media productions also raised the profile of this issue, and a TV station re-ran their documentary for free due to overwhelming popular demand. The group also provided input on a legal framework for biosafety, which was incorporated into regulation awaiting parliamentary approval.

FoE Cameroon succeeded in one of its main objectives: using the law to stop the spread of GMOs by pushing their government to elaborate its existing regulation. Furthermore, their local media are now very active in raising people’s awareness on GMO risks.

FoE Ghana also achieved a major success, bringing inadequacies with Ghana’s draft Biosafety Bill to the fore at their workshop for policy makers and parliamentarians. As a result, civil society, led by FoE Ghana and another NGO, has been asked by the government to present its concerns about the draft Biosafety Bill.

FoE Nigeria’s project was very effective, and government officials attending their conference, “promised to carry the people along in the Biosaftey Bill making process.” The group added that, “There has been huge press coverage of the project,” with FoE Nigeria now seen as a major player on the issue as a voice of the people.

FoE Sierra Leone also successfully used its GMO testing to persuade the government to pledge support for local farmers and promote food security, instead of relying on food aid. Their government has also set up a strict port and boarder post to track down illegal imports of rice and other food items.

Friends of the Earth Ghana and Friends of the Earth Togo received funding to carry out joint capacity building, networking and campaigning on GMOs. Their goal was to protect traditional agriculture and the integrity of biodiversity through the establishment of responsible policy that discourages GMO introduction and ensures food security, food sovereignty and farmers’ rights to livelihoods. They also aimed to increase the effectiveness of the GMO campaign of Friends of the Earth International in terms of sustainable development targets and poverty reduction.

Most groups reported that their projects built up alliances with civil society, target groups and communities. Their organisations’ capacity to work on GMOs, biosafety, food and agricultural issues was also strengthened.

what we learned: One challenge, cited by FoE Cameroon, is visually demonstrating the differences between GM and conventional crops; they found people were only convinced when shown via their GMO testing regime. FoE Nigeria said that despite their campaign, a significant proportion of society is still unaware of GMOs. In Ghana, campaigners faced the challenge of conveying complex GMO information to mostly illiterate farmers and market women.

FoE Nigeria also reasoned that the problem lies not just with corporations, but with their public bodies’ weak law enforcement attitude and officials’ possible collusion. The group implored government to carry out proper screening procedures to rule out GM imports.

In countries such as Ghana, which must grapple with GMOs in food aid, the groups face the additional challenge of undoing extensive, well-financed public relations work of agencies such as USAID, which promote GMOs. In a similar way, industry collaboration with African governments to promote GMOs further adds to the groups’ daunting task of grassroots education.

what next: Some groups need to do further testing in foreign laboratories to independently confirm the presence and level of GMO contamination in their samples. They also wish to do ongoing monitoring for GMOs on market shelves, to sustain pressure on their governments to take their biosafety responsibilities seriously. They believe they need to continue and intensify their campaigns, given major gaps remaining in African nations’ biosafety legislation.

with thanks to our funders: the sigrid rausing trust and the dutch ministry of foreign affairs


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