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take our Gmaize or starve

by brian Sunday, Aug. 25, 2002 at 1:09 AM

they call themselves humanitarian, but in pushing GM food on to third world countries they are opportunistically exploiting other peoples tragedies

LONDON (AlertNet) - The rejection of food aid by some southern African countries when millions of people are at risk of starvation has fuelled debate over the role of biotechnology in alleviating hunger.

In spite of chronic food shortages in the region -- which NGOs say were aggravated, if not caused, by government mismanagement -- Zimbabwe turned down an offer of cheap corn from the United States.

It expressed concern that, unless the grain was milled before distribution, it could be used for planting and damage the country's chances of exports to European consumers who reject genetically modified (GM) products.

Food security specialists say that large-scale U.S. producers benefit from offloading surpluses on poor countries, while an African scientist says that rejecting new agricultural technology is a luxury that only rich countries can consider.

Peter Rosset, co-director of the San Franciso-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, better known as Food First, who himself is from the United States, told AlertNet: "I think they should tell the U.S. to go to hell."

Zambia initially refused U.S. corn, but then accepted it. The Zimbabwe Independent newspaper reported in June that Zimbabwe turned down a U.S. shipment of GM maize, which was instead transported to Malawi and Zambia, where there are also severe shortages.


"I think they should tell the U.S. to go to hell"


In late June, the government agreed to take the corn as long so as it was milled immediately on arrival in the country. However, no one has stepped forward to cover the cost.

Kitty Warnock of the environment programme at the London-based Panos information institute, said: "I think it's entirely up to them whether they accept it or not, according to the existing law and opinion in their country about GM food. There certainly can't be any right or wrong answer that GM food shouldn't be offered to them in food aid or that they must accept it. If the government turns it down and we the donors think that people ought to be given food to eat, then we must provide food that the government won't reject."


Jane Moyo of ActionAid said: "If people are starving, we wouldn't say no. But people have to want it."

Warnock said: "It's still so much of an issue that I think it's not appropriate to force people to accept GM food."

Henni Groenewald, a scientist at the Institute for Plant Biotechnology in Cape Town, South Africa, told AlertNet: "If I have to choose between starvation and if I'm going to use something that's a GMO (genetically modified organism), I wouldn't think twice. Lots of the arguments that people come up with in the First World countries are because the people have the luxury of arguing about these things."

Moyo said that ActionAid had run citizens' juries in Brazil and India on the use of GM food crops. "Both of those came out heavily against them, until they had further information. So for us as an aid agency the jury is still out." ActionAid said it had not knowingingly distributed GM grain as food aid.

Groenewald said: "Arguments about safety should be carefully looked at. But you can't just put a limit or not do any field trials. Then we won't be able to see what happens with these things. As I am a scientist, I can't say that there will never be a problem. It's only politicians that can say something will never happen.

"If I'm involved in the production of a GM crop, I must make sure that it will be competitive with the alternatives on the market, so I will definitely go out of my way to make sure that in the first place it's safe and that it give you some advantage in some way, either better yield or lower input costs or environmental friendliness."


"I think it's not appropriate to force people to accept GM food"


Moyo said that farmers were worried about losing their choice over seed suppliers. She said people were particularly concerned about "terminator" food technology being developed, which would insert traits into grain to switch off its growing mechanism, preventing farmers from storing seed and using it the following season.

"Genetic modification helps big grain companies control the food supply," she said. "Poor farmers have grown these crops for generations, and they are concerned that they will be charged higher prices. With 'terminator' seeds, you would have to buy new seeds every year."

Groenewald said: "I would see biotechnology making an impact for food security if you could make drought resistance or increased yield or increased nutritional value, if you make the technology available to subsistence farmers and produce what they need. The owners of the technology must allow that."


Moyo said that contamination was another concern. "In some countries you could say: 'our food is GM-free' and you could charge a premium for your products, but once food aid comes in, particularly maize, people won't just not eat it, they'll plant that maize too, and if it's GM, it'll spread."

Groenewald: "If you accept biotechnology and GM technology to use, then mixing doesn't become that important, except if someone wants to claim back their investment in that technology."

Food First's Rosset, who attended the World Food Summit in Rome in mid-June, told AlertNet that he was disappointed by its final declaration, which included a call for biotechnology to be encouraged.

He said he had argued at against promoting biotechnology. "There's a global excess of production of food so, at a global level, our inability to produce more is not the problem. In those areas where food production is lagging, when we look at it closely we find that policies to do with trade liberalisation, cutting of subsidies, privatisation of marketing boards, are limiting the ability of poorer and smaller farmers to produce, not lack of technology. And then we add those things together with the potential risks of these unproven technologies, then we really see that this is not the way that we should be investing our time and money in terms of addressing poverty and hunger."

The U.S. government had its own interests in encouraging acceptance of biotechnology, Rosset said, adding: "The biotechnology industry is a powerful industry in America and they're pretty much in bed with U.S. government officials."

Warnock said that, until the last World Food Summit, there was a consensus among food security specialists that inadequate production was rarely the cause of hunger and that starvation was usually caused by government mismanagement and poverty.

"I think that was a little bit shaken by the U.S. insistence on promoting GM crops in developing countries, which is based on the assumption that the question is we need more food."

Moyo said: "ActionAid would always argue that famine is about policy failure."


Save the Children UK's regional director for southern Africa, Deborah Crowe, said in a statement: "In addition to flooding and drought over the past two years, a complex mix of political and economic factors have added to the crisis. In Malawi, the liberalisation of the grain market has been poorly managed and in Zimbabwe the pressures on commercial farmers have substantially reduced crop yields."

Mark Wright, Save the Children's programme officer for southern Africa, told AlertNet that he agreed that there had been government mismanagement but the environment had also played a massive role. "If there's no rain, there's not a lot the government can do about it," he said.


"We don't want to have to respond to the same crisis year in, year out because the reasons for the crisis reappear every year"


Most NGOs have moved away from using food aid in all but emergencies. Many of them provide tools and seeds alongside food distribution, if necessary.

Wright said: "As an agency, we respond to a humanitarian crisis. But we don't want to have to respond to the same crisis year in, year out because the reasons for the crisis reappear every year. So there is a role for advocacy around fair trade, for getting the right policy around whether you liberalise grain markets or not."

He said that advocacy should be carried out to persuade donors of the need for better preparedness and planning. "You don't have to wait for the first person to die before you say there's something going wrong," he said. "There are lots of signals which should prompt action earlier so you all work in a preventive rather than a reactive manner."

Rosset said: "The main purpose of food aid from the E.U. and the United States is to open new markets for exports rather than ending hunger. In general, food aid is negative because it undercuts the ability of local producers to produce and creates dependency, but when it is necessary in an emergency situation, the best practices are to purchase the food as locally as possible.

"That might mean in the next valley, it might mean in the next country, but if you buy it locally you strengthen local food production and local food economies rather than undercutting and weakening them. Under no circumstances should you bring food from the United States and the E.U."

Moyo said: "Food aid is tied aid. Food aid is dumped food. It's subsidising rich farmers in the west. These aren't small hill farmers, these are giant agribusinesses who are mopping up most of the subsidies."

Warnock said: "This is a classic real case of dumping surplus food aid. I think it's wrong of the U.S. to try and offload its surplus GM food on countries that might not have got to the point of making decisions on whether they want it or not."

According to the U.N. regional news service IRIN, GM technology is widely is use in the United States and Canada, and increasingly in Argentina and China. South Africa produces limited quantities of genetically altered maize and nearly all its white maize, a staple in many southern African diets, is GM free.

Wright said that Save the Children had procured food to distribute in Malawi. "Another part of the equation is how long it takes. Obviously it's quicker for us to get it from South Africa than from the U.S."

However, Wright said that food would have to be shipped in: "If you see how much food people need across the sub-region compared to how much they've got, there's a gap of four million tonnes. Of that, the WFP has said that 1.2 million should be brought in under food aid, and the rest should be made up from government imports for their own strategic grain reserves, or the commercial sector."

Richard Ragan , a representative in Zambia for the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), said: "GM maize in the U.S. costs about per tonne and shipment is around 0 per tonne from the U.S. to Zambia. White maize in South Africa will costs around 0 per tonne, so we have to settle for the cheapest."

Warnock said: "Whether it's more expensive or not shouldn't really be the question."


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