ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network
2 September 2002


"...[African] government subsidies on maize production have been discontinued under pressure from the World Trade Organization [but] it now seems that it's OK for the starving here to eat subsidised maize, just as long as it is GM and grown in America." Andrew Clegg,Windhoek, Namibia (item 2)

"These governments have screwed up and are looking for someone to blame." Andrew Bennett, Monsanto's head biotechnologist in Johannesburg (item 1)

"What is sad is not that we are letting people starve -- we are not. What is sad is people taking advantage of the desperate situation and forcing people to eat what they don't want to eat," Dr Mwananyanda Lewonika, Zambian scientist speaking in Johannesburg

1. "While Johannesburg talks development, food Luddites let Africa starve" - NGIN
2. Tainted aid - New Scientist


1. "While Johannesburg talks development, food Luddites let Africa starve"

According to an article this weekend in the Australian press, "While Johannesburg talks development, food Luddites let Africa starve" (Against the grain, The Weekend Australian, August 31, 2002). This was one of several such articles over the weekend clearly emanating from comments made by the US administration, the biotech industry or their supporters.

A Washington Times headline read, "US AID Administrator Slams Environmental Groups Over Biotech  Food For Africa". The paper reported from Johannesburg how US AID Administrator Andrew Natsios "accused environmental groups yesterday of endangering the lives of millions of famine-threatened Africans by encouraging their governments to reject genetically modified US food aid."

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman was also quoted in several articles as echoing Natsios' sentiments from Washington DC, "Our ability to deliver desperately needed food has been greatly  hindered by individuals and organizations that are opposed  to biotechnology and who are providing misguided statements  about the U.S. food system." Veneman also spoke of "an irresponsible campaign to spread misinformation".

Almost completely missing from such press reports were voices like that of Dr Mwananyanda Lewanika, a scientific advisor to the Zambian government, explaining why Zambia has concerns about the GE "Food Aid". In a statement made jointly with other leading Africans, Lewanika commented, "Aid was not offered - money ($51 million) was given as a loan to the private sector to import maize from the USA. When this maize was imported Zambia was not informed that it was GE contaminated. It is important to get prior consent from a country rather than imposing GE contaminated food grain on a nation."

Dr Lewanika also noted Zambia did not yet have a regulatory system to evaluate GMOs, and that Zambia's decison on US aid had been taken as a result of public consultation, "Zambia has had public debates on the issue. The majority of small scale farmers said they would rather starve than use GE food. Hunger is a real issue in Zambia, however, there is still time to prepare and to provide GE free food." []

It can only be hoped that Zambia is right and that the international community will support its efforts. The US, however, clearly does not want to see countries like Zambia making their own decisions in this way, and seeks to place the blame on politically motivated organisations. According to Natsios of US 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".

The US's pro-active role was reflected in an article in the UK's Guardian newspaper last Friday which quoted EU development commissioner, Poul Nielson's comment to Reuters, "We have been pushed around by the way the Americans have put pressure on this issue."

If the EU feels "pushed around", one can only guess what it can have been like for other nations and organisations in the US's line of fire. The Guardian, for instance, noted, "the three countries who have put conditions on the food - and are preparing to mill it themselves - are angry at the pressure tactics used by the US, which has refused to offer conventional food or to mill the seeds."

The reasons for wishing to mill the seeds are perfectly clear and eminently reasonable - see, for instance, the letter to New Scientist below. What is not reasonable is the propaganda campaign being run against anybody who questions the biotech industry's activities or products, or the overbearing approach of the industry's supporters in the US administration who appear determined to stop African countries finding any resolution of the problem other than the uncontrolled acceptance of genetically modified food.

In terms of the real campaign to spread misinformation, take a look at Monsanto. The same Australian article that spoke of "food Luddites [letting] Africa starve" quoted Andrew Bennett, "Monsanto's head biotechnologist in Johannesburg". "These governments have screwed up and are looking for someone to blame. Their people are starving and need food. This should not even be the subject of discussion at a time like this. Our products are resistant to disease and insects, and they create higher yields. If anyone plants our stuff, they are certainly not going to complain once they see the result." (Against the grain, The Weekend Australian, August 31, 2002)

The truth about the Monsanto product in question - GM (Bt) corn:

*it is not resistant to disease

*it has not been tested agronomically in the countries in question

*it is engineered to resist the corn borer, but insecticide use on US corn may have increased since its introduction (Benbrook, C.M. (2001) Do GM crops mean less pesticide use?, Pesticide Outlook, October 2001)

*it has had a negative economic impact on US farms, according to a recent US Department of Agriculture Report ('The Adoption of Bioengineered Crops', p30

This is why Iowa State University agricultural economist, Michael Duffy has concluded that the primary beneficiaries of GM crops are not farmers but biotech companies.

And the authors of the US Department of Agriculture Report were left pondering, "how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative."

The explanation is simple. US farmers have been listening to the likes of Monsanto.

Meanwhile, according to this Sunday's (London) Observer even some of the US's more dependable allies may be getting queasy over its antics in southern Africa, "Blair's chief scientific adviser denounced the United States' attempts to force the technology into Africa as a 'massive human experiment'. In a scathing attack on President Bush's administration, Professor David King also questioned the morality of the US's desire to flood genetically modified foods into African countries, where people are already facing starvation in the coming months."


2. Tainted aid

Andrew Clegg; Windhoek, Namibia
New Scientist, Vol. 175, August 31, 2002, Letters

It is untrue to say that Zimbabwe, or any other country in Southern Africa, has refused food aid that contains genetically modified maize, as you state in your Editorial (3 August, p 3). What they have turned away, as your report on page 4 says, is unmilled GM maize that could be planted. I understand that requests to the donor to mill it have so far been rejected. Zimbabwe is not the only country to have made this request. The unfortunate implication that this is due to a lack of understanding in the region about the implications of GM technology is very far from the truth.

 Indeed, the GM debate here seems to be conducted at a far higher and less hysterical level than I see it is in Britain. This is not just a Zimbabwean issue, but one that affects the whole of southern Africa. All the countries in the region are being forced to consider their response to the importing of GM food products. All are currently working on issues concerned with biosafety and local biodiversity, having endorsed the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, and the nub of the problem is a simple one. This part of the world exports food mainly to Europe for the high-quality end of the market. Its beef, in particular, is renowned not only for its excellent taste, but also for the fact that it can all be guaranteed wholly organic. The concern amongst agronomists here is that this market strength will vanish if there is even the slightest suspicion that products can no longer be guaranteed GM-free. As the ActionAid statement pointed out, there is a widely expressed concern here that the refusal to mill GM maize before sending it as food aid may be an attempt to undermine the viability of the region's agricultural sector by bringing its organic and GM-free status into question, thereby opening up the area to the high-tech seed multinationals. I have no means of judging the validity of this argument, but it would not be out of line with the general experience of the region. On the one hand, government subsidies on maize production have been discontinued under pressure from the World Trade Organization - precipitating, for example, a widespread switch from maize to cotton in Namibia. And on the other, Irish butter is dumped on the market and sells for oe 1 per kilogram, suppressing the local dairy industry. It now seems that it's OK for the starving here to eat subsidised maize, just as long as it is GM and grown in America.

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