More on African Debate
over GE-Tainted Food Aid,,3-375599,00.html

London Times
August 06, 2002

Africa torn between GM aid and starvation
From Michael Dynes in Johannesburg

STARVING nations in southern Africa are being forced to choose between
accepting genetically modified food aid or condemning millions of people to
death in the worst food shortage in 50 years. They fear the long-term
effects of GM foods, as well as their impact on exports to Europe.

After the UN World Food Programme appealed for £325 million to buy 1.2
million tons of food to prevent 13 million people from dying of starvation,
the United States, where GM products are widely used, donated nearly
300,000tons of food aid. But the UN agency has since said that it cannot
guarantee that its shipments will be GM-free.

Fears over the potential health and economic implications of a large influx
of GM foods into southern Africa are now so great that President Mwanawasa
of Zambia has said that he would rather let his people die than feed them
hazardous food. Rejecting a donation of GM maize from America until local
health experts had assessed its safety, Mr Mwanawasa said: "If it is safe,
then we will give it to our people. But if it is not, then we would rather
starve than get something toxic."

Andrew Natsios, of the US Agency for International Development, said: "US
farmers cultivate both GM and non-GM crops. They are both mixed together.
There is no way they can be separated. If you want maize from the US, that's
what you get."

Zimbabwe, which is worst affected with six million people facing starvation,
refused to accept imports of GM maize for months, afraid that subsistence
farmers might use it as planting seed, which would allow it to
cross-pollinate with existing strains. The EU refuses to accept GM foods
grown outside Europe and Harare fears that GM maize could be eaten by
livestock, undermining Zimbabwe's ability to certify that its beef exports
are GM-free. It has since agreed to accept donations of GM maize, but is
insisting that it is milled before entering the country to reduce the risk
of contamination.

Mozambique is equally unhappy about taking shipments of GM food. It is
demanding that all World Food Programme lorries carrying food aid into the
country are sealed with plastic sheets to minimise the threat of spillage.

Concerns about the health and economic consequences of accepting GM food aid
have also led to a debate about whether advances in biotechnology can be
harnessed to help to alleviate poverty and hunger in the world's poorest

Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan scientist who pioneered the first genetically
modified sweet potato in sub-Saharan Africa during the 1990s, insists that
the new techniques promise to double or even triple crop yields. "Europeans
can afford to debate," she said. "They are arguing from the comfort of a
food surplus. Hungry people want something to eat today."

However, Andrew Taynton, a founder member of the Safe Food Coalition in
South Africa, said that the average American consumer eats maize only as a
small part of his or her diet. Little was known about the effects of GM
foods on people for whom maize makes up more than 90 per cent of their diet.

"Nowhere have we observed the long-term effects of GM foods," he said.
(Received by nlpwessex 6 Aug 2002)

Africa's tragedy


By Devinder Sharma

"Food is power. We use it to change behavior. Some may call that bribery. We
do not apologize" - Catherine Bertini, Executive Director of the World Food

Some years back, a keynote speaker at the International Famine Centre at
Cork, Ireland, detailed how maize was loaded on ships bound for Britain at
the height of the great Irish potato famine that killed some 1.5 million
people more than 150 years ago. He paused and then lamented: "I wonder what
kind of people lived at that time who were not even remotely offended at the
sight of millions dying of hunger in the same village where the ships were
being loaded."

A hundred years later, the same class of people were largely responsible for
the great Bengal Famine in 1943, in which an estimated 1.5 million to 3
million people perished. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen explains in his now
well-known theory of entitlements, the Bengal famine was not the result of a
drastic slump in food production but because the colonial masters had
diverted food for other commercial purposes. And if you are wondering
whether the same evil class of the elite decision-makers has perished with
the collapse of the erstwhile colonies, hold your breadth.

In the last 60 years or so, following the great human tragedy of the Bengal
famine, food aid was conveniently used as a political weapon. But what is
arguably one of the most blatantly anti-humanitarian act, seen as morally
repugnant, is the decision of the United States Agency for International
Development (USAID) to offer US $50 million in food aid to famine-stricken
Zimbabwe provided that it is used to purchase genetically modified maize.
Food aid therefore is no longer an instrument of foreign policy. It has now
become a major commercial activity, even if it means exploiting the famine
victims and starving millions.

That is the official line at the USAID about the corn it has offered to
Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and Malawi, where an estimated 13
million people face severe hunger and possibly live under the spectre of an
impending famine after two years of drought and floods.

For the genetically modified food industry, reeling under a growing
rejection of its untested and harmful food products, there is money in
hunger, starvation and death. Spearheaded by USAID, the industry has made it
abundantly clear that it has only genetically modified maize to offer and
was not willing to segregate. The WFP, which over the past few decades has
for all practical purposes become an extension of USAID, was quick to put
its rubber stamp. It had earlier helped the United States to reduce its
grain surpluses by taking the genetically modified food for a mid-day meal
programme for school children in Africa.

President Mugabe may not be able to hold for long. He had earlier told
Zimbabwe's Parliament on July 23: " We fight the present drought with our
eyes clearly set on the future of the agricultural sector, which is the
mainstay of our economy. We dare not endanger its future through misplaced
decisions based on acts of either desperation or expediency." But then, the
biotechnology industry is using all its financial power to break down the
African resistance. Once the GM food is accepted as humanitarian aid, it
will be politically difficult for the African governments to oppose the
corporate take-over of Africa's agricultural economy. For the industry,
Africa provides a huge market.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa too has said that his people would rather
die than eat toxic food. While Malawi says it has no choice but to accept GM
maize, newspaper reports cite Mozambique, from where Malawi's food aid has
to pass through, asking the WFP to cover it with plastic sheeting to avoid
spillage while in transit.

Malawi incidentally is faced with famine after it was forced to sell maize
to earn dollars for debt servicing. Explains Ann Pettifor of the New
Economics Foundation: Just three months before the food crisis hit, Malawi
was encouraged by the World Bank "to keep foreign exchange instead of
storing grain" Why? Because foreign exchange is needed to repay debts.
Creditors will not accept debt repayments in Malawian Kwachas. Or indeed in
bags of maize. Only "greenbacks" or other hard currencies will do.

One of Malawi's key commercial creditors needed to have their debt repaid,
according to Malawi's president, who in a BBC interview said the government
"had been forced (to sell maize) in order to repay commercial loans taken
out to buy surplus maize in previous years". President Muluzi said the IMF
and the World Bank "insisted that, since Malawi had a surplus and the
(government's) National Food Reserve Agency had this huge loan, they had to
sell the maize to repay the commercial banks." So Malawi duly sold 28,000
tonnes of maize to Kenya. Under pressure from her creditors, led by the
World Bank and the IMF, Malawi exchanged maize -- her people's staple
diet -- for dollars.

And now, it is getting another loan to purchase genetically modified from
the United States. Sure the USAID has been working overtime to create a
market for its genetically modified food industry !

The debate on biotech food however goes still further. After all, it is the
commercial interest of America's sunrise industry. The biotechnology
industry has always been quick to use agricultural economists and Nobel
laureates as effective 'loudspeakers' to promote the unhealthy food on
gullible populations. One of its most distinguished spokesperson, Dr Per
Pinstrup-Andersen, former director general of the Washington-based
International Food Policy Research Institute, said that Zimbabwe was using
the food to play politics. Referring to President Mugabe's recent
land-reform policies, he added: "I think it is irresponsible . Unless they
know they can get enough food from elsewhere that is not genetically

And how much quantity of grain is required to tide over the food crisis in
central and southern Africa? A million tonne, is all that the WFP estimates.
Surprising that the WFP as well as Pinstrup-Andersen are not aware of any
other source of getting non-GM foodgrains for millions of hungry Africans.
Ironically, the country which is laden with overflowing grain silos and an
unmanageable grain reserves is the one to have come to the rescue of a
famine-stricken Ireland in the nineteenth century. The first shipload of
grain that came for the starving Irish was from India. And more recently,
India had provided food on 'humanitarian' basis to the war-torn Iraqis'. And
soon after Bin Laden and his associates were forced out, India had stepped
in to fight immediate hunger in Afghanistan early this year. Earlier too,
India had come to the rescue of Ethiopia at the height of the Ethiopian
famine in the mid-1980s.

With 65 million tonnes foodgrains stockpiled in the open, and that too of
non genetically modified grain, WFP will do well to purchase instead from
India. With the grain from the reserves priced at Rs 4 to Rs 5 a kg (less
than 10 American cents a kilo), the WFP will not find cheaper food available
anywhere. But this will not happen, in other words will not be allowed to
happen. After all, the impending famine in Africa opens up a new market to
sustain the multi-billion dollar US biotechnology industry. What happens in
the bargain to the resulting crisis in human health and misery, and
environment contamination from GMOs is none of the concern of the American
grain merchants. In fact, it never was.

At the height of the 1974 famine in the newly born Bangladesh, the US had
withheld 2.2 million tonnes of food aid to 'ensure that it abandoned plans
to try Pakistani war criminals'. And a year later, when Bangladesh was faced
with severe monsoons and imminent floods, the then US Ambassador to
Bangladesh made it abundantly clear that the US probably could not commit
food aid because of Bangladesh's policy of exporting jute to Cuba. And by
the time Bangladesh succumbed to the American pressure, and stopped jute
exports to Cuba, the food aid in transit was 'too late for famine victims'.

Food was then a political weapon. Food aid has now in addition become a
commercial enterprise. Famine or no famine, the Shylocks of the grain trade
must have their 'pound of flesh'. #

Devinder Sharma is the author of In the Famine Trap.

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