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Beware Americans Bearing (GE) Gifts

http://www.foodfirst.org/media/opeds/2002/bewareamericans.html
Beware Americans Bearing Gifts - Another Poisoned Chalice in Africa
Raj Patel August 08, 2002

The United States Agency for International Development recently
chartered a ship - The Liberty Star - to deliver thirty six thousand
tons of grain to an estimated 13 million starving people Southern
Africa. Mozambique will not let it cross its soil, and Zambia has
decided that it wants nothing to do with it. Why? Because the US cannot
guarantee that the grain is not genetically modified.

The United States Agency for International Development recently
chartered a ship - The Liberty Star - to deliver thirty six thousand
tons of grain to an estimated 13 million starving people Southern
Africa. The Malawian government accepted the donation, and Zimbabwe has
just allowed the grain to be imported, as long as it is milled.
Mozambique, however, will not let it cross its soil, and Zambia has
decided that it wants nothing to do with it. Why? Because the US cannot
guarantee that the grain is not genetically modified.

This looks like morbid folly, like a dangerous game played with the
lives of starving people for political gain. This is precisely true. The
US government has been playing this game for well over a decade; the
famine in Southern Africa provides merely the latest installment.

An example: ever since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1995,
the US has been exporting unlabelled GM crops to Mexico. Last year, the
Mexican Ministry of the Environment found that farmers' traditional
maize in two remote Mexican states, Oaxaca and Puebla, had been
contaminated with DNA from GM corn. Mexico is the world center of maize
genetic diversity, and home to maize varieties developed by farmers for
millennia. Africa contains vital sources of genetic diversity for
breeding locally adapted varieties -GM seed puts this at risk.

The covert US introduction of GM food into Africa is pernicious, for
three reasons. First, there is mounting evidence that GM crops may be
unsafe. Researchers working for the British Food Standards Agency
discovered last month that, despite cast-iron guarantees from the food
industry, the DNA from GM crops is capable of finding its way into the
human gut. Without independent research, the unfettered marketing of
this food turns every consumer into a guinea pig. Because of the
reasonable suspicion this engenders, the US can't find a market for GM
grain in the EU or Japan. The solution: dump it onto the starving in the
Third World, thus subsidizing US corporate agriculture, and prying open
markets for GM food.

The second reason to be worried is that the GM AID compromises the
sovereignty of Southern African countries. These countries want safe and
secure access to nutritious food, and don't feel that GM crops fit into
this agenda. When India railed against GM food aid, a USAID official
responded thus: "Beggars can't be choosers."

A little history, please. The reason poor countries now find themselves
holding a begging bowl is because of the last gift they accepted from
the US and EU: structural adjustment policies. These policies promised
financial stability, growth and prosperity. They delivered reduced
levels of health, education enrolment, and employment, and increased
poverty, inequality and debt- facts that the United Nations and even the
World Bank are now, reluctantly, beginning to admit.

These adjustment policies demanded a reduction of national grain
stockpiles because, the rhetoric ran, the market will provide. The
notion of 'saving lives through food aid' rings a little hollow if we
remember this; there were, prior to structural adjustment, ample ways to
feed the people, without relying on frankenfood.

Southern African countries didn't have much of a choice about becoming
beggars, but they can choose what to do next. History instructs us here
too. Images similar to those that accompanied Live Aid are once again on
our screens. But these aren't the same starving children. They're
Southern African this time, not Ethiopian. In Ethiopia, despite a strong
US-led push towards commercialized agriculture, alternatives have been
developed in the wake of the famine. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher won
the Right Livelihood Award (the alternative Nobel Prize), by showing
that it is possible for Ethiopian agriculture to produce a nutritious
and diverse surplus without the intervention of the agrichemicals and
'life science' industries. That these alternatives are being obscured by
the debate over GM foods is the third, and perhaps most invidious,
reason to resist US aid.

These alternatives hold great promise for the future, but what about
here and now? Several options already exist. Governments genuinely
concerned about the welfare of Southern Africans should give immediate
monetary aid so that food from other parts of the region, or other
non-GM polluted parts of the third world, can be brought in. The
HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has been immeasurably worsened by the famine,
can be quickly addressed by tearing up the World Trade Organization's
stipulations on intellectual property rights. So would land reform in
the region so that the hungry might feed themselves.

There is a gamut of people-centered policies that might be supported in
the region. Yet we hear nothing of them from the US government. This is
why for many Africans, the deliveries from the Liberty Star are
comparable to those 'deliveries' meted out in Afghanistan. Both are
ordnances of a kind. No good can come of either.

*Dr. Patel is a policy analyst at the Institute for Food and Development
Policy, also known as Food First, based in Oakland, California.
http://www.foodfirst.org


 

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