The agricultural and food crisis is being felt in different parts of the world, especially in countries that are most vulnerable to climate change, where agriculture is one of the main sources of income for families. This has led to the engagement of a number of material and financial resources – supposedly in order to meet the need and demand for basic foods – through various initiatives promoted by multinational companies of production and multiplication of seeds tolerant to different conditions of nature.
At the same time, the demand for food to address hunger and malnutrition has been used as a pretext to boost the industrial food production business conducted by large multinational companies, using unsustainable technological practices that endanger human health and the ecological balance in general. These practices include the use of biotechnology – especially the so-called genetic engineering, which makes use of scientific knowledge like the application of techniques of manipulation and recombination of genes – for the production of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), thus seeking to meet the growing challenge of food production. GMOs have also been used under the pretext of their useful application in animal farming and in the pharmaceutical industry for health care improvements. However, there are several implications for the use of these bodies, which in recent years have given rise to major debates within the scientific community.
On the European continent, a number of countries have enthusiastically embraced the production and consumption of genetically modified organisms, but today, according to Dr. Angelika Hilbeck, as a result of this and other wrong decisions, Europe has lost about 80% of its population of insects and faces a biodiversity crisis. Curiously, today, many of these European countries have introduced policies to discourage the production, marketing and consumption of products resulting from genetic manipulation because of the implications that have been placed on human health and the environment. Even so, year after year, the international campaign carried out by large corporations with the aim of promoting the production, commercialization and consumption of GMOs – especially in the Southern countries (a.k.a. “developing countries”), as is the case of Mozambique – continues to increase.
Since 2001 – when we ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (Resolution 11/2001) – Mozambique has been working on the elaboration of national biosafety legislation. This work culminated with the approval of the Regulation on Bio-security on the management of Genetically Modified Organisms (Decree No. 6/2007), which established preventive measures and rules for controlling activities involving GMOs. This decree provided for a series of preventive measures, especially with regard to the import, marketing and research of GMOs. However, seven years later, part of these measures were changed with the repeal of the aforementioned decree and consequent approval of Decree No. 71/2014 – a change whose purpose was clearly to create room to allow the production of GMO crops. Legislation “tweaks” such as this one, are being carried out without the effective consent of the public that potentially consumes these products, thus violating Article 5 of Decree No. 27/2016 that regulates the Consumer Protection Law and also what was stipulated by the Nagoya Protocol regarding the right to information about products entering the country and their impacts.
The project for the introduction of Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) is a clear example that demonstrates the kind of pressure Mozambique is subject to regarding GMO introduction into its agricultural production system. The WEMA project involves five countries – Mozambique, South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda – and is a public-private partnership, co-ordinated by the African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF) in partnership with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), Monsanto and the national agrarian research bodies of the countries in question; and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates and Howard G. Buffet Foundations. At present, in Mozambique, the project is in its test phase in confined fields and consists basically of the production of maize varieties, both conventional and genetically modified, that are drought tolerant and resistant to insects.
In Mozambique, little is known about the real impacts of GMOs, and public debate on this issue is almost non-existent. Due to the Government’s clear intention to allow the production of GMOs in the country without an effective public consultation, since 2017, a group of organisations has sought to start this debate in a more open, democratic and transparent manner. In this context, the African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) and Justiça Ambiental (JA) organized a two-and-a-half day training workshop to share updated information on GMOs in Africa, – with an emphasis on Mozambique – as well as knowledge on Biosafety Regulations under the auspices of the Biosafety Protocol in Mozambique, with emphasis on human health, environmental and socio-economic impacts. The workshop was attended by peasants, civil society organisations, government representatives and academics.
In addition to ACB representatives from some African countries, the workshop also had internationally renowned experts on GMOs and its impacts (such as the aforementioned Dr. Angelika Hilbeck or Dr. Lim Li Ching) and in themes related to Biosafety. During the meeting, the researchers presented several scientific studies that point out the impacts of GMOs on the environment and human health in the world – including antibiotic resistance. For the researchers, the safety of GMOs is still very questionable, and while this doubt prevails, the Precautionary Principle set forth by the Cartagena Protocol – to which Mozambique is a signatory – should guide us.
JA regrets that the path to avoid the production of GMOs in Mozambique is never going to be a short one, since governments such as ours are easily manipulated and taken over by large international corporations – such as Monsanto – that intervene in countries agricultural production policies while, at the same time, regretably do not allow, for example, that their genetically modified seeds be subjected to independent and impartial research, claiming the Principle of Intellectual Property. For the sake of science and knowledge, JA believes that technologies must be studied, but those studies must be conducted impartially and independently. The interests of the companies that fund the researches cannot hold them hostage. Important aspects for science and for general public knowledge can never run the risk of being omitted. Moreover, these circumstances only demonstrate that the alleged benefits of GMOs may be a mere product of policy decisions resulting from such public-private partnerships.
In addition, as one of the researchers pointed out during the workshop, truly unbiased studies have to ask the right questions and try to answer them as thoroughly as possible. A study that does not comprehensively address issues pertaining to its purpose, but chooses to answer specifically “commissioned” questions, cannot be taken seriously. The same researcher said she believes in several other technological solutions for seed improvement to increase agricultural production and productivity that do not necessarily require the use of GMOs, provided that the same financial resources granted to GMOs are made available for this purpose.
In conclusion, JA calls on the Government to conduct a broad, transparent and impartial public consultation with all sectors of Mozambican society, without distinction, in order to ensure that policies that only benefit private entities, albeit to fundamental aspects such as human rights and the environment, are not imposed on society.
 Angelika Hilbeck, PHD, is a senior researcher and lecturer at the Institute for Integrative Biology of Zurich (ETH Zurich). Specialized in biodiversity and conservation, ecology, entomology and transgenics. She is the author of various books on the problem of genetically modified organisms.