ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

by GRAIN (Genetic Resources Action International)
published in ‘Seedling’, October 2002

"I have heard . . . that people may become dependent on us for food. I know that was not supposed to be good news. To me that was good news, because before people can do anything they have got to eat. And if you are looking for a way to get people to lean on you and to be dependent on you, in terms of their cooperation with you, it seems to me that food dependence would be terrific."
Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, in naming US Public Law 480 the "Food for Peace" program, Wall Street Journal, May 7, 1982.

"The hope of the industry is that over time the market is so flooded [with GMOs] that there's nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender."
Don Westfall, biotech industry consultant and vice-president of Promar International, Toronto Star

This provocative title of an article in The Economist magazine of 23 September sums up the scorn that the US government has been heaping on governments and NGOs resisting the US offers of shipments of genetically modified (GM) food to the hungry in Southern Africa.  The Economist article claims that "Africans have two reasons for being wary of GM food aid: one silly, one slightly less so." The "silly" one being that GM food is bad for human health and the other that GM maize could contaminate local varieties of maize. The tone of the article is a good reflection of how charged an issue GM food aid has become in the last few months.

The crisis in Southern Africa affects Angola, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as large numbers of people in Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland. It is estimated that, across the entire region, 9.4 million people already require immediate food assistance; a figure that will rise to 16.3 million in early 2003.  Adverse weather conditions are much to blame for the current crisis such as drought, erratic rains, floods and tornadoes over successive years causing drops in food production. Because of the long period of bad weather, many poorer farmers have nowhere to turn to find food. Other underlying factors have also reduced the ability of countries to feed themselves: political instability in Zimbabwe, a fragile peace in Angola, poor macro-economic performance in all countries in the region, inappropriate government policies, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

In emergency situations, food aid is mostly distributed by the World Food Programme (WFP), a United Nations body based in Rome. But the WFP and voluntary organisations only organise and distribute the food. It is national governments who provide the food aid, in particular the United States - the largest provider of food aid in the world - administered by the US Department for Agriculture (USDA) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The effective early warning systems of NGOs working in Southern Africa had alerted the world to the impending food crisis in the region well in advance of the famine hitting hard. Malawi and Zimbabwe declared states of emergency at the end of February and the end of April this year respectively. By early June the first shipments of GM maize were arriving from the US. Zimbabwe was the first country to reject the maize, through fears of contamination of local maize varieties and the threat to the GM-free premium it commands for its agricultural exports. The maize was redirected to Malawi and Zambia.

The very real problem of contamination

Maize is grown as a staple throughout much of Southern Africa and there is a serious threat of the GM maize being planted and cross-pollinating with local varieties. According to the FAO, "Maize is known for its propensity to outcross, but this is less of a concern in southern Africa where there is no large genetic diversity of this crop."   Southern Africa may not be a centre of origin for maize, like Mexico, but it is a centre of diversity for maize and such contamination could have very serious consequences. Maize has been grown all over Africa since the early colonial times. It was readily adopted by local farming communities because it grew rapidly and its cultivation was undemanding. Once dried, it stored well and germinated for several years after harvest. Some 54% of the maize-growing area in Africa is still planted to local varieties. This is because formalised breeding programmes have failed to produce ‘improved’ varieties that grow well in Africa.  Farmers have had to rely on their own creativity to develop varieties that work. Over the several hundred years that maize has been grown in Africa, an impressive diversity has been created by farmers all over the continent.

The WFP, FAO and the US have shown little concern about the threat of contaminating local maize varieties. USAID’s Andrew Natsios claimed "Starving people do not plant seeds. They eat them!"  While Natsios may know about famine relief, he doesn’t appear to know farmers. However hungry, many of the recipients of the food aid will save some of that maize seed, albeit in small increments, to bury in the earth. Farmers can’t stop themselves, because they are already thinking about next year’s harvest and how to safeguard their food supply. Planting GM maize can then lead to the contamination of GM genes into other local maize varieties. This is exactly what happened in Mexico; the maize that has contaminated local varieties entered the country as food aid, with the intent that it would just be eaten, not planted.

African heads of state have recognised that maize seed will be planted, and some would be willing to accept GM food aid if it was milled, because it can only be eaten in that form. But USAID will not consider milling (either domestically before the grain leaves or in country when it arrives) because that would look like admitting that there is something wrong with the maize. Even the FAO does not seem to recognise how important milling is. It says that, "In the specific case of maize, processing techniques such as milling or heat treatment may be considered by governments to avoid inadvertent introduction of genetically modified seed. However, it is not UN policy that GM grain used for food, feed, or processing should necessarily require such treatments."

Milling is not a good option in any case: it dramatically reduces the shelf life of maize from ten months to three; increases transport and handling costs; increases the risk of infestation and increases delays. In addition, some countries like Malawi do not have sufficient milling capacity in-country.  In the end, some of the governments in the region have caved in to pressure to accept shipments of GM food aid. Zimbabwe has reversed its position and opened its doors to GM food, and Malawi and Mozambique have said they will accept GM maize so long as it is milled. Zambia is still saying no - against a formidable opponent, the United States.

The Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre and the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection have been at the forefront of NGOs in Zambia supporting their government’s controversial position on food aid. They say that the current push by some relief food providers for African countries such as Zambia to accept the GM foods without any questions is neither honest nor fair. "As church groups with close connections with the suffering hungry people in Zambia, we recognise the seriousness of the current food situation in the country. The GM question is not for us an academic issue or a political debate but a matter of life and death for our sisters and brothers."  These groups make two demands:
* That the Zambian government acts swiftly and openly to source and distribute non-GM food.
* That Zambia’s cooperating partners should respond generously to the needs of the Zambian people and not politicise the issue or force Zambia to accept what it does not want.

Examining philanthropy

In response to the criticisms waged by governments and NGOs, USAID accused these groups of endangering the lives of millions of people in southern Africa by encouraging local governments to reject GM food aid. "The Bush administration is not going to sit there and let these groups kill millions of poor people in southern Africa through their ideological campaign," Natsios told the Washington Times in August. But let us take a closer look at the extent of the US’ concern for the hungry in South Africa:

* The US says it cannot provide guaranteed GM-free maize because there is no requirement in place to separate GM and non-GM grains in the US. Strange that a 2001 American Corn Growers Association survey showed that more than 50% of US elevators can and do segregate GM and non-GM grains.  The US position is one of choice, not necessity.
* US aid comes with strings attached. It either donates foodstuffs or it ties its monetary aid to the purchase of US produce. This is despite being a signatory of the 1999 Food Aid Convention, which recognises that food aid should be bought from the most cost effective source, be culturally acceptable and if possible purchased locally so that regional markets do not suffer.  Cash is widely acknowledged to be the most effective form of food aid.  It enables food supplies to be obtained locally and more quickly, supporting local economies and giving some possibility of ending the reliance on food handouts.
* The US introduced Public Law 480 to ensure that "commodities will not be made available [for food aid] unless … the distribution will not interfere with domestic production or marketing."
* The US boasts that "The principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programs has always been the United States" and that its "foreign assistance programmes have helped create major markets for agricultural goods" . USAID also states that one of its roles is to "integrate GM into local food systems."
* The US refuses to mill the GM maize even though African countries facing famine have requested this.

The US has persistently refused to respect Africa’s concerns and requests regarding food aid. It is working to its own agenda, taking the attitude that countries in crisis should be grateful for whatever they are offered.  The UN has not helped. The FAO has taken the line that GM food is safe, that contamination will not be a problem and, in so many words, that governments will be acting irresponsibly if they don’t accept GM food aid.  The WFP recently admitted that since 1996 food aid distributed to the South contained GM material and none of the countries who received the food aid - India, Colombia, Guatemala and many African countries ? were informed.   Since 1996 most developing countries have made it very clear, in negotiations on international biosafety rules, that they want to be told in advance about GM imports.

More than one solution

Though it may not be easy and it may be more expensive in the short term, there are other ways to feed the hungry.  Before March 2003, between 1 and 2 million tonnes of grain will be needed in emergency food aid.  The FAO estimates that 1.16 million tonnes are available in countries as close as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa. Devinder Sharma suggests that India’s 65 million tonnes of non-GM food grain stockpiles might also be a good source.  Even acknowledging that there are a lot of different factors and logjams to consider, it just doesn’t seem it should be that hard, if the political will is there. As Jean Ziegler, the UN special investigator on the right to food has said, "There is plenty of natural, normal good food in the world to nourish the double of humanity."

Saliem Fakir, director of the South Africa office of the World Conservation Union got to the crux of the issue when he said, "Africa is merely a pawn in this global game of chess. By forcing Southern African governments to take a decision on GM foods, a precedent will be set. The next time round, US corporations will roll out their grand plan for agricultural rejuvenation in Africa founded on GM-based production. African governments will be hard-pressed to resist given that they have subverted their own policies in the face of a food crisis."  Fakir goes on to say that "If sufficient regions adopt this mode of production, the US will have created a group of like-minded countries to help it lobby against EU policies at trade negotiations. The US is interested in the EU market because this is where money is to be made, not in Africa." Europe has begun to react to the situation. Norway and the EU have started to look into funding GM-free sources of food aid and the Netherlands has given $4 million to the region (including $500k to Zambia for GM-free food). But more is needed. The combined voices of the EU can help the WFP resist USAID’s bullying tactics and construct a new plan that will really support Southern Africa’s hungry - not for the next six months, but the next 20 years. Europe needs to demand that the US offers real help.

This means providing cash, not food, so that the WFP and the governments in Southern Africa can source food locally as much as possible. This will support agriculture in the region as a whole, which is one important step towards long term food security for African farmers. A new plan would also mean helping countries address some of the economic pressures they face. Malawi’s food crisis was exacerbated by pressure from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which caused it to sell 28,000 tonnes of maize reserves to Kenya to pay off commercial loans Malawi had taken out to buy maize surplus in previous years.  The new plan would also need to include measures to rebuild local food security that recognise the complexity of the farming strategies required to sustain farming communities in much of the region. And that means keeping GM crops out of farmers’ fields.

The issue is not whether a few sacks of GM maize are going to make people in Southern Africa keel over and die, but whether the international community is really bent on helping African farmers support their families, their communities and their integrity. Many painful experiences in the past have shown how poor food aid strategies undermine local food security, rather than sinking the roots for strengthening the food base. We should have learnt by now that we need to set our sights on 52 years, not 52 weeks. Allowing GM food aid to pollute the core of Africa's crop diversity will undermine the very basis of food security in the region. Food aid to Africa and elsewhere must be GM-free or we run the risk that our generation will ensure that food aid will be needed forever.

This article can be viewed as originally published here

1. The Economist, "Better Dead than GM Fed," The Economist, 23 September, 2002. Read it for free at
2. Save the Children, Evolution of a Crisis - A Save the Children UK perspective, September 2002.
3. FAO, Director-General urges countries to think carefully before rejecting GM food aid, FAO press release,  30 August 2002,
4. Melinda Smale, Economic Incentives for Conserving Crop Genetic Diversity on Farms: Issues and Evidence.  Summary was prepared for EXPO 2000, based on a longer paper prepared for the meetings of the International Agricultural Economics Association, Berlin, August 12-19, 2000.
5. John Vidal, "US dumping unsold GM food on Africa," The Guardian, 7 October 2002.
6. FAO, Director-General urges countries to think carefully before rejecting GM food aid, FAO press release,  30 August 2002,
7. Oxfam internal discussion paper, September 12, 2002.
8. Agricultural Training Centre and the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection, GM Food Debate: some very important clarifications, Press Release, October 3, 2002. Contact Bernadette Lubozhya, Lusaka, +97 826571, 278606
9. Corn Growers' Third Annual Survey Shows More Elevators Requiring GMO Segregation. American Corn Growers Association, 18 December, 2000. http//
10. ActionAid (London) Press Release, October 15 2002
Commission response to the Southern Africa humanitarian crisis. European Commission, 15 July 2002
11. Food Aid Programs Description: Public Law 480, Food for Progress and Section 416 (b). US Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service, 2001
12. Direct Economic Benefits of US Assistance by State, USAID, 2002.
13. USAID Announces International Biotech Collaboration. US Department of State, June 2002
14. Greenpeace, USAID and GM Food Aid, October 2002.
15. FAO, Director-General urges countries to think carefully before rejecting GM food aid, FAO press release,  30 August 2002,
16. Fred Pearce, "UN is slipping modified food into aid," New Scientist, 19 September 2002
17. Save the Children, Evolution of a Crisis - A Save the Children UK perspective, September 2002.
18. Devinder Sharma, Africa’s Tragedy - Famine as commerce, See also:
19. Reuters, "UN food envoy questions safety of gene crops," Reuters, 5 October 2002.
20. Saliem Fakir, "Africa is Merely a Pawn," Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg), 8 October 2002.
21. Devinder Sharma, Africa’s Tragedy - Famine as commerce, See also:

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