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Africa: GM dumping-ground
Open Democracy
29 - 4 - 2004

The dumping-ground: Africa and GM food aid
Patrick Mulvany

Unequal power relationships in the world economic system mean that hungry
Africans often have no choice but to eat genetically-modified food. Patrick
Mulvany argues that the commercial policies of rich nations ? especially the
United States ? dominate food aid, not the interests of the poor.

Two decades after the ?biblical? Ethiopian famine of 1984 darkened the plains
outside Korem, the scourge of hunger is still rising in Africa, accelerated
by climate change, conflict and disease. Today, in a world of plenty and
despite repeated commitments to provide food for all (codified at the World
Food Summit and in the first Millennium Development Goal [1]), more than 40
million people in the continent are threatened. Across the world, a child
dies of hunger every five seconds. ?Hunger is neither inevitable nor
acceptable. It is a daily massacre and a shame on humanity,? Jean Ziegler
[2], United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, reported to the
Human Rights Commission in March 2004.

This shame on humanity should be a spur to implement a long-term ?Marshall
Plan? to secure local food supplies that would ensure hunger is eradicated
across the continent. This has not happened. Indeed, support for local
sustainable agriculture and emergency grain stockpiles has fallen under
global trade rules.

Those with power, particularly the United States, have used hunger as
justification for trade supremacy and the promotion of proprietary
genetically-modified (GM) crops owned by northern multinational corporations
? much to the delight of pro-GM advocates [3]. Countries and their peoples
who legitimately resist the consumption of GM grain and seed are under
intense diplomatic threat of denial of food aid in times of crisis. United
Nations agencies and US private voluntary organisations are complicit in this
process, as is attested in these minutes [4] of a May 2002 meeting between US
Private Voluntary Organisations and the US Department of Agriculture).

Angola is the latest country to have declared, in March 2004, that it will
not import GM grains and seeds until Biosafety is proven. According to
Elizabeth Matos [5], chairperson of the National Plant Genetic Resources
centre in Luanda, the ban has also been implemented to protect Angola?s
great diversity of plant life. ?We (hold) in our gene bank almost 800
different types of maize and local ecotypes that we have picked up from all
over the country and we don?t want this material crossed with GM,? she said
[6]. Despite huge diplomatic pressures Angola, has continued to resist GM
food aid imports and it will now mill much-needed food aid before use or
import it from non-GM sources. Zambia has offered in principle to provide
the 19,000 tons of GM-free grain from its 120,000-ton surplus produced in

In Sudan, whose western Darfur region is engulfed in a terrible conflict [7],
more than a million displaced people need food aid. The government declared
in a letter to the World Food Programme in 2003 that it would not import GM
grains after April 2004; but that date has now passed, and no alternative
food aid strategy has been developed and it has been pressured to accept GM
food aid or nothing [8]. The irony of this situation is that Sudan has
enjoyed one of its best harvests in recent years ? 6.3 million tons, of which
82% is comprised of sorghum ? and this GM-free grain could be made available
if purchased and transported west.

In 2002-03 Zambia [9] was put under intolerable pressure to accept GM food
aid but it resisted. The famine predicted by the pro-GM advocates did not
ensue, as alternative food supplies were found. In December 2002, Zambia had
300,000 tons of surplus GM-free cassava in the north of the country. There
was also sufficient GM-free food available in sub-Saharan Africa. 1.8
million tons of cereals were available for export for an assessed
requirement [10] for additional food aid in the region of 1.47 million tons.
In India, 60 million tons of GM-free food were available, with a million
tons already pledged as food aid to Afghanistan.

The contamination of food aid

Most of the food grains globally available for export are GM-free. Only about
5% of the world?s 1.5 billion hectares of farmland is sown to GM crops (much
of it cotton [11]): only the food sourced from US farms is contaminated with
varieties of GM crops, developed mainly for livestock feed, with inbuilt
insecticidal properties and able to tolerate increased applications of

This contamination of food aid has arisen because the US government has
failed to ensure identification, labelling and segregation of GM varieties.
Since the release of commercial GM seed varieties in 1995-96, plantings of
GM corn and GM soya have risen to 40% and 80% respectively of the total US
crop in 2003. As these grains and their derived oil are principal
ingredients in US food aid shipments, the food aid pipeline from US farms to
Africa has become increasingly contaminated.

The food aid is managed by the UN?s World Food Programme (WFP). The US
provides half the food aid delivered by the WFP to Africa, paying part of its
contribution in cash but making most available only via grain (wheat,
corn/maize and soya) from US farms. This export pipeline has provided a
guaranteed market for American farmers, courtesy of their government. In
2000, the US shipped around five million tons of food grains which (with
other cash contributions) amounted to about $800 million. This may now to
rise to $1 billion dollars.

In September 2002, the WFP admitted that it had been secretly delivering
contaminated food aid for seven years [12]. This unleashed a wave of protest
from governments who felt they had been abused in times of need and at a time
when they were declaring in UN negotiations on Biosafety that they wanted
protection from GM food imports.

The response was mounting pressure from the US and the WFP to force
acceptance of GM food aid and ?biotechnology? ? a generic term including GM
crops. This onslaught started in the approach to the 2002 World Food Summit,
and continued in South Africa at the World Summit on Sustainable Development
(WSSD) in 2003. The US, and especially the US agriculture secretary (and
ex-Monsanto executive) Ann Veneman had a single-minded purpose at these
events: to gain acceptance of biotechnology and GM food as a solution to
hunger (see [13] and [14]).

The US pressure [15] continued through 2003 with the openly pro-biotech
science and technology ministerial meeting in Sacramento ? timed to influence
outcomes at the World Trade Organisation summit [16] at Cancún, and the
passing of the HIV/Aids act by Congress that linked health assistance to
acceptance of (GM) food aid.

The US uses diplomatic missions round the world to press its case. For
example the press officer of the US?s London embassy ? who notoriously had
to withdraw the claim [17] that ?exactly 0%?of the maize food aid offered by
the US and refused by several African governments [in 2002] actually came
from the US? ? now says that there ?is no, absolutely no, conditionality in
the legislation? linking GM food aid to US help for HIV/Aids victims in
Africa (even though the legislation clearly states that ?US food assistance
should be accepted by countries with large populations of individuals
infected or living with HIV/Aids, particularly African countries, to help
feed such individuals.?

Even if ?technically non-binding?, such Congressional statements are being
used by US officials to promote acceptance by otherwise reluctant
governments. And if the only US food aid available is GM, then that is what
they will have to import.

>From victimhood to empowerment

But the uncomfortable reality is that the plight of the hungry is used by the
powerful to justify trade domination; poor countries and their peoples are
pawns in an unequal global power game.

In June 2003, [18] President Bush said in an acclaimed speech to the US
biotech industry: ?For the sake of a continent threatened by famine I urge
the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology ? many
African nations avoid investing in biotechnology, worried that their products
will be shut out of important European markets.?

The lead African negotiator on these issues, Tewolde Egziabher, countered
[19]: ?This premise is untrue ? a form of colonialism. Africa will lose its
right to decide its own future and will become dependent on the US for
patented seeds. GM will not feed the world, and this is why Africa led
negotiations on the Biosafety Protocol.?

Since 11 September 2003, the Biosafety Protocol [20] has been legally-binding
and at the first meeting of its governing body in Kuala Lumpur in February
2004, African countries strengthened the protocol by securing agreement to
require compliance, acceptance of liability and effective labelling of GM
exports. This is a step in the right direction, Tewolde Egziabher said. These
measures are ?badly needed ? for the caution that we will force on those who
export.? [21]

In Kuala Lumpur there was a sense of victory that the majority world was
asserting itself, standing up to US bullying and achieving an agreement on
regulating GM trade and food aid. The challenge now is to translate this
ruling into actions that will protect vulnerable countries and peoples from
dumped GM food aid. African civil society organisations are calling for such
measures to be implemented without delay.

Their appeal should also persuade the UN to decontaminate the food aid
pipeline, reform trade rules, implement agreed programmes to eradicate hunger
and ? as Jean Ziegler reported to the UN Human Rights Commission in April
2004 [22]? help countries and communities attain food sovereignty.

?The problems of food shortage in developing countries are mulitfaceted and
the absence of high yielding varieties is rarely a cause. The real reasons
are economic and political. The ability to store fore in good years of
harvest to use in bad years is very low. There often is not enough money or
infrastructure to buy, store, transport and distribute to those whose harvest
has failed. Even when distribution is possible, the hungry are too poor to
buy it. This complex situation cannot be solved through biotechnology, as
everyone knows, a single technology does not constitute development. To cap
it all, there is no evidence that GM varieties produce better or more than
their non-GM counterparts. They only bring in new vulnerabilities.?

Tewolde Egziabher, chief African negotiator on Biosafety
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