A Matter of Ethics
ACT (www.act-intl.org) News Release
July 28, 2006
Action by Churches Together (ACT) International adopts policy on the use of GM food in emergencies
GENEVA - The debate over genetically modified organisms, or GMOs as they are also known, is one of the most polarising and controversial flash points related to food supply and its impact on social, economic, cultural and environmental welfare, often triggering passionate responses.
Add the humanitarian imperative in disaster response to the discussion, and you end up with a double-edged sword: the non-acceptance of genetically modified food can lead to a deepening crisis, with more deaths as a result, but at the same time, accepting these foods can lead to changes in agricultural practices, pollute the environment and damage local food grain varieties.
In April this year, the global alliance Action by Churches Together (ACT) International took a stand on the issue, adopting a policy on genetically modified organisms to guide its members when responding to humanitarian disasters.
"As the debate continues on the harmful effects of GMOs, the ACT alliance could not just sit and watch from the sidelines without producing a policy to protect our food beneficiaries in emergencies," says John Nduna, director of ACT International.
Melton Luhanga of Churches Action in Relief and Development, a member of the global ACT alliance, believes that it's important to have such a policy. "It will help guide us when we carry out our relief interventions," he says.
Not enough conclusive information
"Most non-governmental organisations [working in Malawi] are discussing the issue," he says.
What concerns Luhanga, however, is that there is simply not enough conclusive information on GMOs-plants and animals that have been manipulated at the genetic level though a special set of technologies that alter living organisms. But he also acknowledges that blanket recommendations force people to make difficult choices: "Could you see people dying if there was food?"
One of the eight guidelines that lie at the heart of ACT's new policy on food distributions and GMOs during emergency operations addresses this troubling concern specifically. It recommends that if the distribution of donated genetically modified food is unavoidable, in order to alleviate a serious hunger situation if there is no other alternative and timely solution, ACT members will make sure that everyone benefiting from the distribution knows where the food comes from and whether the food has been genetically modified or not. And all beneficiaries will have the right to choose and decide if they want the food or not.
Sibongile Baker, director of ACT member Lutheran Development Service (LDS) in Zimbabwe, says that education is crucial. "People need to know what this about," she says, explaining that in emergencies "we have to address people's immediate needs * hunger, in other words."
"Our experience is that when people are hungry they will eat whatever food they can get. And if they can preserve anything [such as seeds], they will. Without the knowledge of the long-term effects it may have," she says. "If the government says no to GMOs it's important for us to be able to explain why it's a 'no.' If we do this, then people will understand. It is our responsibility."
Donna Derr, the director of the emergency response program of U.S.-based ACT member Church World Service, emphasises that "the 'right to know' is a critical aspect of the food aid debate."
"All those involved-food donors, organisations distributing food and recipients of food aid-must have full access to information that allows them to understand the implications of donating, distributing or accepting GMOs," she believes.
A matter of principle
Three principles underpin the implementation guidelines that all ACT members will follow in the future when distributing food in emergencies. The first is the precautionary principle. The essence of this principle is that the burden of proof of harmlessness of a new technology, process, activity or chemical lies with the proponent, and not with the consumer and general public. "Of course, this is not the task of the ACT members," says Rev. Cornelia Füllkrug-Weitzel, director of Diakonie Emergency Aid, the ACT member based in Germany. "But it obliges members of the ACT family to lobby their respective government concerning appropriate legislation," she explains.
The second principle is the right to food. Everyone has a fundamental right to be free from hunger and being undernourished. Realising this right requires not only equitable and sustainable food systems, but also clear entitlements such as the right to work, to land and to social security, with the understanding that the primary responsibility for this rest with the states.
"Again, it is imperative that ACT members advocate their governments: in the North to provide enough finances to feed the people in emergencies; in the South to pay enough attention to the agricultural sector in general, to sustainable farming, and building and keeping stocks in particular," Füllkrug-Weitzel says.
The third principle is the right to know. All people have the right to know whether there are genetically modified ingredients in the food they buy or the seeds they sow. This also means that they have the right to have enough information to make responsible decisions.
Rev. Forbes Matonga, national director of the Zimbabwean NGO (and member of the ACT alliance) Christian Care, believes that GMOs pose "a threat to food security in developing countries, precisely because the seeds are controlled by a few multi-nationals-the principle of a few having it all."
For him, as a member of the faith-based community, it is crucial that "as long as scientists are not telling us what the implications are for mother earth, then we should not simply accept it."
He explains that although the Zimbabwean government does not allow GMOs to enter the country in principle, it has allowed some consignments in during emergencies, but only milled grains.
ACT's director agrees that it is a "complex issue with some of the largest food companies in the world having an economic interest in promoting the production of genetically modified foods because of the huge profits they reap from selling these products."
The Lutheran World Federation's (LWF) director and country representative in Zambia, Enos Moyo, argues that the issue of GMOs is about ethics and biodiversity that leads to a nasty catch-22 situation. "Poor people cannot afford to buy new seeds each season and cannot recycle hybrid seeds, which means that every season, they are forced to buy new seeds. But it's a difficult issue."
Moyo, who contributed to the guidelines for the policy regulating the use of GMOs by LWF's Department for World Service (DWS) that formed the basis for the ACT policy on the issue, describes how between 2001 and 2003 LWF found people eating a certain kind of poisonous root that they had to boil for at least 24 hours before they could eat it [as a result of the drought that had the country in its grip]. Even then," he says, "they still got diarrhoea, although it was manageable."
"But if people had a choice - GMOs or poisonous roots?" he asks, shrugging. "There's no real answer. It's just a difficult issue."
This is exactly why the LWF/DWS program believed it was crucial to develop such guidelines. DWS's acting director, Rudelmar de Faria, says given that most of the LWF/DWS programs working in emergency situations are involved in food distribution, "we felt that it was urgent to provide guidance to our staff on the use of GM food in emergency and development operations, in order to ensure compliance to and coherence with our principles for sustainable development and social justice."
Is it safe?
Sangster Nkhandwe, director of ACT member Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, Synod of Livingstonia, in Malawi, sums up the one thing that drives most people's fears. "We [just] don't know the long-term effects on humans."
LWF's Moyo agrees. "We understand that it's safe, but this is based on the fact that rich people in the north are eating it. But are they eating it in large quantities. What if 100 percent of all your meals are made of GMO-based food. What is the effect then?"
Sibongile Baker believes the scientific community should continue to research exactly this, saying that it's hard to say a "blanket no" to food, if the only other option is no food. "Has the medical field done enough thorough analysis? What quantities need to be consumed to have a long-term effect?"
"We work with humans," says Melton Luhanga. "Are all the real facts known?"
"When dealing with commercialisation, it's sometimes difficult to find the truth," he notes, then adds, "And the concern is, of course, that the truth will only be known when the damage is already done."
In Malawi, he explains, whenever and wherever possible, his organisation has and continues to buy non-GMO commodities: maize, rice, biscuits. He stops for a moment before asking, "But do we really know whether the biscuits don't contain GMOs or not? We need to proactively go after the truth in this matter," he says.
It is exactly for this reason that ACT International's director believes that the adoption of this policy was an important step. "It's been four years in the making-four years of discussions and deliberations, and even though there is no conclusive evidence related to the products' 'safety' either way," Nduna says, adding that there is a belief that GMOs can be harmful to human consumers in the long term."
A crucial point in the new ACT policy is that ACT members will in the future follow the guideline that they will not buy any genetically modified food with the resources administered by them, even if the food comes from local markets (given that in ACT's procurement policy, members of the alliance are encouraged to, wherever possible, buy as much food aid locally, nationally, and in the region.) There is also the understanding that ACT members will comply with the relevant national legislation on biosafety (if it is in place), especially regarding the use of GMOs in food aid. And in the future, all ACT members will, in the event of having to distribute GMO crops as food aid, with no other option, do so only if the crops are milled.
"Safety also applies to long-term food security. Genetic modification of food often includes the elimination of its potential to be used as seed. Because of this aspect, people remain dependent on foreign food aid in the upcoming seasons-to the benefit of the world-wide agricultural industry," says Füllkrug-Weitzel.
A question of ethics
"The issue of GMOs has important ethical implications. In order to take a stand on GMO-related issues, it is important to ask for whom and for what purpose and - not the least - what the driving forces behind the development are," says Karin LexEn, policy director for ACT member Church of Sweden. For her, several questions related to this controversial issue have not been fully answered. "Are marginalized and poor people and their perspective in the centre of the development and the investment? What will happen in the long-term perspective in terms of ecological, social and economic sustainability? It is of vital importance that poor people and countries are not pushed or forced to accept GMOs."
"While we know that in severe situations of food crises, people will accept any food they are given simply to survive. The policy calls for any GMO grain given in a food emergency to be milled. This is one way of reducing the risks that GMOs may have," says Nduna. "This policy was long overdue and I am happy that we have it now."
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