ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

3 December 2002


Famine in Africa: Twists in the maize:
Guardian Special Supplement
The Guardian (London) November 30, 2002

Southern Africa needs over 1m tonnes of food aid urgently.  The US can supply half that. The only problem is, the US claims  it can only afford to supply GM food

John Vidal

What is the situation?

Some 14 million people in southern Africa  and at least as many again in Ethiopia are malnourished,  many hundreds are believed to have already died, and more  than 1.2m tonnes of food aid are urgently needed to avoid a  major famine over the next three months.

What is the problem?

The US, which provides almost two-thirds of the  food needed to meet emergencies around the world and has  pledged more than 50% of what is needed for this crisis, is  only offering genetically modified food.

What's wrong with that?

The US says nothing at all. Americans have been eating genetically modified foods for years, the World Health  Organisation and the UN's Food and Agricultural  Organisation as well as all leading science academies say  it's quite safe. Even Roger Moore, who played James Bond  and is now a goodwill ambassador for Unicef, says it's OK.

That's not good enough for some countries?

It is and it isn't. Swaziland has accepted all maize, but Zimbabwe,  Malawi, Mozambique and Lesotho only want the GM maize if it  is milled before distribution.

What's their problem?

The fear in southern Africa is that the US maize only comes in  seed form. Farmers have a tradition of saving seeds for  planting of the next year's crop rather than buying it each  year. If they plant it, which often happens with food aid,  the genes from these GM seeds can be expected to cross over  to conventional plants. They have a constitutional problem,  too. No country in the region has the means to detect or  manage GM organisms and none has legislation in place on  biotechnology and bio-safety.

What about Zambia?

It does not want GM food at all, even though up to 3 million people  are desperate. A team of leading Zambian scientists was  dispatched to several countries to investigate GM food  safety and concluded they were not convinced the GM maize  was safe for humans or the environment. President Mwanawasa  has declared the food "poison".

That's plain wrong, isn't it?

The Zambian scientists are worried that health problems  that have not shown up in the US or Canada might appear in  Africa where maize is eaten so much. They point to some  western scientists who say there are real fears about  allergies.

Why can't Africans eat wheat or other foods?

Maize is the staple dish, eaten three times a day. Most of  the hungry have no knowledge of other foods and no  experience of cooking them.

So why can't the US mill it, which would prevent farmers planting it?

The American grain companies refuse to do so, they say, because of the  cost and because, they claim, it would delay the relief effort.

Could the US not separate its GM maize from conventional crops?

Only 34% of US maize is genetically modified, but  major grain companies often refuse to separate it out from  conventional crops for two main reasons. USAid, the  government overseas aid body, argues that to do so would be  costly and could delay the relief effort by up to six  months.

Is this true?

Unproven and rather unlikely. There are believed to be millions  of bushels of non-GM maize accessible on the US market.

But why can't the Americans give money for food aid so countries  can choose what they want to eat and buy it on the world market?

They say that it is written into the constitution of the USAid that  aid must benefit US industry.

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