ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
25 August 2002


More than 2m people in this country face starvation. Zambians are grateful to the US and other countries for the help being offered, but we desperately and urgently need assistance that is consistent with a long-term strategy of food security, that respects public opinion within the country and that does not force us into decisions the country is not yet ready to take. It is principles such as these that should underpin discussions at this month's World Summit on Sustainable Development.

from a letter to the Financial Times (London) August 22, 2002, 'Respect Zambians' opinion on food aid', by Fackson Banda, Executive Director, Panos Institute, Southern Africa, Lusaka, Zambia

1. Chorus of disapproval grows over modified grains
2. Hunger in a world of plenty
3. Earth Summit's failure will be our success: anti-biopiracy campaigners


1. Chorus of disapproval grows over modified grains

Financial Times (London) August 23, 2002

JOHANNESBURG and GENEVA: The Geneva-based World Conservation Union (IUCN), a federation of 70 countries, yesterday urged southern African nations to reject genetically modified food relief from the US until sufficient scientific research had been conducted on its environmental impact. The IUCN, which also represents 10,000 scientists worldwide and 750 non- governmental organisations, criticised the US for supplying GM grain as food aid to drought-stricken southern African states. It advised African countries to consider the future implications of introducing GM food into their agricultural systems. The IUCN fears that grains and other forms of food relief might be planted by local farmers rather than consumed by those affected by food shortages. If GM strains find their way into local crops, exports may be rejected by countries more sensitive to the potential danger GM crops pose to the environment. "You have to ask why genetically modified food is being offering to them (African countries)," said Xenya Cherny, a spokesman for the union.

 "It resembles the forced dumping by the US of genetically modified organisms. They can proliferate very quickly. It could hugely affect biodiversity."

 Southern Africa, faced with the prospect of thousands of people starving over the next six months, is divided about whether to accept the food supplies. While Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique have resisted US food aid, Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland have accepted it. The controversy over GM food is likely to spill over into next week's UN World Summit on Sustainable Development, to be held in Johannesburg. The US is eager to gain greater international acceptance of GM foods, but is worried its food aid and the threat of famine on host country South Africa's borders might inflame the debate. The US State Department said in a statement that there was "no evidence to suggest that biotech food is any less safe than its conventional counterparts". "Now is not the time to turn away safe and desperately needed food," it said. UN agencies are urgently trying to defuse the row before the summit. The World Health Organisation, World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation plan to issue today a joint statement on GM food aid. It will urge donors and recipients to balance the spectre of millions of people starving to death alongside governments' legitimate concerns over GM food imports. Officials said the statement would make clear there was no evidence to date of any risk to humans from eating GM versions of maize or soya, which the WFP is supplying in southern Africa. As for the risk of environmental contamination from escaped or planted GM grains - the main concerns of Zimbabwe and Mozambique - agencies will urge donors and recipients to find mutually acceptable solutions, which could include milling grain before delivery. The US, whose shipments contain GM grains, supplies 60 per cent of the food aid distributed by the WFP.


2. Hunger in a world of plenty

Massive subsidies to western farmers are having a disastrous effect on developing countries, reports John Vidal
The Guardian (London) August 22, 2002

Modesta goes hungry every year from January until April. She and her family live from harvest to harvest in the village of Gumbi and are among Malawi's 1 million poorest farmers, barely earning Dollars 200 a year. They have learned to cope during what they call "the hungry season". Her husband usually goes to the tobacco plantations to earn money and the family collects wild foods, but for the past two years their staple maize crop has failed and her husband has found no work. By February, the people of Gumbi were starving - 17 people died - and the village now depends on western food aid. Gumbi is a small village but it exemplifies the problems facing more than 1 billion subsistence farmers in Africa and the developing world. Their endemic hunger has little to do with how much food they produce but everything to do with entrenched poverty compounded increasingly by global forces, local politics and long-term unsustainable development. If Modesta had money she could go to the local market and buy grain from America, rice from Thailand or vegetables from Mozambique. If the government had not been told to sell off its food reserves by the IMF and international donors, there might be free food available from just five miles away. If the Malawian economy had not been in such bad shape and the world prices of global commodity crops such as tobacco so low, there would have been work for her husband. If she hadn't been encouraged to grow a variety of foods rather than just maize, she would not have been so vulnerable to environmental extremes. Up to 24,000 people a day, three-quarters of them children aged under-five, die of hunger-related causes. More than 800 million people are chronically undernourished, 180 million children are severely underweight for their age and, says the UN, 2 billion people suffer from nutrient-deficiency diseases. Yet the world has never grown so much food and there is no overall scarcity. Even with population growth expected to be measured in billions, no global shortages are forecast for decades. Hunger may stalk the land, but there is plenty of food, even in the markets of Malawi and Zimbabwe. What we see now is increasing hunger amid ever-greater plenty. Just because a country or a village produces food does not mean it has no malnourished people or shortages. The US exports 60% of the food it grows, yet 26 million Americans need food handouts. India's grain silos have been bursting for five years and a record surplus of 59m tonnes has been built up, yet tens of millions of Indian children are undernourished. Between them, Europe and the US subsidise their farmers by about Dollars 350bn a year, which allows their surpluses to flood cheaply into poor countries, depress world prices, and undermine local farming. Only 20 years ago, Ghana used to export rice; today its rice industry has collapsed under US and Thai imports. Many Pakistani farmers have burnt their harvests in desperation because they are losing money.

 About 20% of Africa's food now comes from rich countries, even though it could easily grow its own. As economic globalisation gathers pace, agriculture approaches a crossroads. The old idea that poor countries should be self-sufficient in food is dismissed by the IMF as outdated. Free trade and market liberalisation, it says, enriches countries and allows them to buy in their food. But, as the World Bank accepts, the globalisation of agriculture has left the poorest worse off than before. With little more land left to plough and the majority of the world's oceans heavily or over-fished, the onus in the next 50 years will inevitably be on increasing crop yields to feed the world's rapidly growing population. There are three main ways to do this, each fraught with problems. The most conventional is raising the yield per crop per acre. Fertilisers and herbicides have almost quadrupled yields in the past 50 years but this way forward is running against natural limits and has led to huge environmental and social damage. Wheat and rice yields per acre have barely increased in 20 years in most countries but these could be increased, up to a point, by genetic engineering. An alternative, only now taking off, is to increase the number of crops per acre.

 This combining of crops is thought to have great potential in some countries. The third way, also rarely used, is to get more benefit from existing harvests by feeding crop residues such as corn stalks and rice husks to animals. But in the end, climate constraints and the availability of water may be the governing factors in increasing land productivity. Africa never embraced the "green revolution", which increased yields dramatically in some countries with the heavy use of pesticides and hybrid seeds, because of its largely semi-arid climate which is too dry in many areas to use fertilisers. Agriculture in the poorest countries can now go one of two ways, each of which is fiercely debated. Fifty years after the green revolution, the US and Europe have called for a new "doubly green" science-led revolution to bring people out of poverty. They believe that there are too many inefficient and technologically backward people on the land and say that to succeed in today's global marketplace, farmers need higher-yielding crops, including GM varieties, access to machinery, more investment, and better crop protection.

 More productive farming, they say, frees people for other, more rewarding activities. They accuse environment and development groups of wanting to keep people poor and peddling a rural nostalgic atavism which is out of step with reality. But this model is unsustainable and socially and ecologically dangerous, say great numbers of NGOs and farmers' associations. They, too, want to see the modernisation of farming, but not the western, export-led model based on trade rules that rich countries have set to their advantage. They want Europe and the US to abolish farm subsidies and allow poor countries to compete or protect their own farmers. The small-scale intensive farming as practised by more than 2 billion farmers around the world can be more efficient than the model which the west demands. It is no answer, they say, to drive people off the land into overburdened cities or impose on them uncertain GM technologies which may involve people going into debt. Land reform, more investment and research into conventional crops, together with education about manuring, water saving and ploughing, could boost incomes significantly without leading to social distress. Both sides point to great successes and they both call their model "sustainable development". The biotechnology industry talks of increasing yields by 10% or more and adding vitamins to crops, while the conventional plant breeders are expected to make significant advances, too, in the next 10 years. Meanwhile, the era of expanding agriculture by irrigation may be ending as aquifers deplete and cities and industry demand ever more water. A World Bank forecast for South Korea, a relatively well-watered country, calculates that if its economy grows 5% a year its growth in water withdrawals for domestic and industrial use will halve the amount available for farming within 23 years. Farming, it is thought, will always lose out to industry. In China, the water needed to produce one tonne of wheat worth Dollars 200 can be used to expand industrial output by Dollars 14,000. Whatever the figures, Modesta and the people of Gumbi just want enough food for the next three days and seeds to plant for next year.


3. Earth Summit's failure will  be our success: anti-biopiracy campaigners

Agence France Presse

JOHANNESBURG, Aug 22 BODY: Global activists lobbied Thursday to end biopiracy but pinned little hope on the upcoming Earth Summit, saying it aimed at further institutionalising the stealing of biological resources by rich nations and corporations. Vandana Shiva, India's foremost anti-biopiracy campaigner, said: "The official summit is a piracy conference by rich and powerful countries, agrobusinesses and water companies to create even more wealth for themselves."

 She said a summit preparatory conference in the Indonesian island resort of Bali had failed because "developing countries were demanding more". "For us the best outcome of the official summit would be failure," Shiva said. "We are at a critical moment in human history and if we don't take the right steps now we will be doomed forever."

 Tewolde Berham Egziabher from Ethiopia's Institute for Sustainable Development said the widespread pilferage of the biological resources of developing countries through the use of patents had been steadily legalised. "The first thing a baby does is grab," he said. "Later this instinct becomes more complex and it remains in some of us. In the 20th century free access to everything was used as an ideology to get what others control."

 Tewolde said that although "there has been a lot of attempt to implement the conservation and sustainable use of biological resources and the equitable sharing of benefits coming from them, the United States has stayed out completely" from the initiative. Rich nations have hijacked the process, he said, pointing to attempts by European and US firms to gain patents on indigenous plants and medicines. "TRIPS (Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights) was enforced after a 1995 agreement of the World Trade Organisation which enforced relations among the pirates ... for example TRIPS was restricted only to wines and spirits. "Why? Because industrialised countries have wines and spirits and they want protection."

 Activists here will discuss over two days specific cases, including human genetic prospecting and exploitation, and ways to end biopiracy. Debra Harry from Biowatch South Africa said an Australian biotech company, Autogen Ltd., had reportedly tried to "secure the exclusive rights to the entire gene pool of the people of Tonga". The company, she said, wanted to use their DNA in its "hunt for drugs to treat diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, ulcers and cancers," adding that it could make "millions of dollars if it led to drugs being commercialised."

 She quoted a Tongan rights activist, Lopeti Senituli, as saying that Tongan health officials denied that such an agreement had been inked. But Senituli added that he had his suspicions about this. Utkarsh Ghate from India said biopiracy also led to the erosion of traditional culture and knowledge. "While biopiracy is evil, the erosion of tradition is worse," he said, adding that activists needed to ensure that any benefits passed on to local communities for their traditional knowledge, medicines or plants, would not lead to a mass migration of youth to the cities. "This has been happening in Canada and Australia," he said. "We have to instill in them a pride for their inherited traditions."

 A burning topic at the anti-biopiracy conference is the hoodia gordonii, a succulent plant which can grow up to six feet (two metres) high and is found in southern Africa. The South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), recently registered the research on hoodia for patenting and passed on its findings to Phytopharm of Britain and US pharmaceutical company Pfizer who want to use it as a prescription obesity drug. Hoodia was traditionally used as an appetite depressant by the San people, who are spread across six African countries. The San, in an unprecedented move, have engaged in talks with the CSIR and have obtained a firm commitment to receive a share of the benefits of the future success of the hoodia plant.

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