The southern African food crisis of 2002 led to one of the most significant controversies over the use of genetically modified (GM) crops in the developing world to date. Zambia's staunch opposition to GM food aid during the crisis is still frequently used as a reference point in debates over GM seed technology in agricultural development, and the morality of advanced biotechnology. This article re‐examines the controversy and its contemporary relevance using oral history interviews with key scientists, policy makers and development practitioners engaged in debates and decision‐making processes in Zambia in 2002, alongside a review of discourses in the Zambian press. The author argues that, rather than different perceptions of health and environmental risks derived from GM crops, it was questions of sovereign regulatory control of technology in a context of diminished state capacity — and the decline in the Zambian state's capacity for agricultural science research in particular — that played a central role in shaping anti‐GM attitudes. In addition, trust in the arguments of GM advocates was diminished by communication efforts which treated Zambian scientists and policy elites as a lay rather than an expert audience.