Science in Society Archive

GM-free Food Aid!

GM food, rejected across the world because it is unsafe, continues to be dumped as ‘food aid’ on the famine-stricken populations in the poorest countries, which will be especially susceptible to the potential harmful effects of GM food. Not just Africa, but throughout Latin America, countries also face the risks of widespread GM contamination that could wipe out indigenous crops and destroy the livelihoods of their farmers. Non-GM food is the only acceptable, genuinely humanitarian food aid.

The United States, through its Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), is using the famine in southern Africa to blackmail the poorest countries into accepting the huge US surplus of GM food. Countries facing famine in southern Africa should accept genetically modified (GMO) food or risk death for millions of its people, a top U.S. official has said.

The safety of GM food is seriously in question, which is why it has been rejected across the world. And the starving and malnourished populations, already ravaged by AIDs and malaria, will be especially susceptible to the potential harmful effects of GM food. This alone makes GM food aid highly unethical. What is not good enough for the rich and the healthy is even less so for the poor and sickly.

Another important issue is the risk of widespread GM contamination in the area as the bulk of the food aid is in the form of whole maize kernels capable of germination. This could wipe out indigenous varieties and destroy the livelihood of farmers that have been depending on exporting non-GM maize. But even the request that the maize be supplied as milled flour was turned down.

Zimbabwe refused an earlier shipment of GM maize kernels, and is reported to have accepted a second shipment that is to be milled. But it is still not clear who is going to do the milling.

Zambia is under great pressure to accept the GM maize, but Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa is reported to have said his people would rather die than eat toxic food. He said that his government would have to examine donated GM food and establish its safety first before giving it to the hungry.

CropChoice editor Robert Schubert, has called for US to offer African countries non-GM maize. He exposed the duplicity of the US government. Earlier this year, the US Department of Agriculture had reported that only about 30 percent of the domestic crop is GM, and in a 2001 American Corn Growers Association survey of elevators in major corn producing state, more than 100 reported that they required segregation of GM varieties.

Pedro Figueiredo, WFP regional logistics manager explained on 1 August that to avoid delays in deliveries to countries where GM food was a problem, non-GM stocks had been redeployed. So far, Lesotho, Malawi, and Swaziland are accepting GM maize.

Ellard Malindi, Chief Technical Adviser in the Malawi Agriculture Ministry, told journalists that the government decided to accept the GM maize purely for consumption. Malawi is faced with famine after it was forced to sell maize to Kenya to earn dollars for servicing its debt.

Mozambique, has asked the WFP to cover the GM maize bound for Malawi with plastic sheeting to avoid spillage while in transit.

GM food aid is not just offered to famine-stricken Africa. In Latin America, food aid containing GMOs has been discovered in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Guatemala.

In May, The Alliance for a Nicaragua Free of Genetically Modified Organisms accused the WFP and the USAID, of using GM foods and seeds in their emergency relief programs in Nicaragua, which was discovered by.DNA testing. The US Embassy has denied that USAID is promoting or financing the distribution of GM seeds within Nicaragua. The WFP, while not categorically referring to GM foods, claim that they never distribute foods are not fit for human consumption or which might damage people’s health in any way.

In June, the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development (FOBOMADE) announced that a sample of USAID food aid tested positive for StarLink corn, a GM variety not approved for human consumption due to health concerns over possible allergenic effects. At the World Food Summit in Rome, FOBOMADE and Friends of the Earth, Nicaragua expressed outrage that more than a year after StarLink was found in the US food supply, it has appeared in food aid. They criticised USAID and the WFP and demanded that GM crops not be sent as food aid to countries that have not formulated biosafety regulations. They emphasised the need to protect the birthplaces of maize from genetic contamination. The sample tested by FOBOMADE also contained two other types of engineered corn not approved in the European Union – RoundUp Ready and BtXtra, both produced by Monsanto.

In Guatemala, Colectivo Madre Selva, a citizens’ group examined a sample of seed sent as food aid and found three varieties of engineered corn not approved in the EU - Liberty Link produced by Aventis and Monsanto’s BtXtra and RoundUp Ready. No legislation against GM foods exists in Guatemala.

In the article below (first circulated on the AgBioIndia mailing list), food-policy analyst Devinder Sharma charts the sordid history of food aid being used as political weapon and as a means of commercially exploiting the famine-stricken. There is plenty of non-GM food that could be provided to southern Africa. India, for example, could provide non-GM food at a fraction of the cost that the WFP is paying to the US for the GM food.

And why is Europe standing by to allow GM food it rejects being dumped on the most vulnerable peoples in need?

Famine as Commerce

By Devinder Sharma

"Food is power. We use it to change behavior. Some may call that bribery. We do not apologize" - Catherine Bertini, Executive Director of the World Food Program.

Some years back, a keynote speaker at the International Famine Centre at Cork, Ireland, detailed how maize was loaded on ships bound for Britain at the height of the great Irish potato famine that killed some 1.5 million people more than 150 years ago. He paused and then lamented: "I wonder what kind of people lived at that time who were not even remotely offended at the sight of millions dying of hunger in the same village where the ships were being loaded."

A hundred years later, the same class of people were largely responsible for the great Bengal Famine in 1943, in which an estimated 1.5 million to 3 million people perished. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen explains in his now well-known theory of entitlements, the Bengal famine was not the result of a drastic slump in food production but because the colonial masters had diverted food for other commercial purposes. And if you are wondering whether the same evil class of the elite decision-makers has perished with the collapse of the erstwhile colonies, hold your breadth.

In the last 60 years or so, following the great human tragedy of the Bengal famine, food aid was conveniently used as a political weapon. But what is arguably one of the most blatantly anti-humanitarian act, seen as morally repugnant, is the decision of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to offer US $50 million in food aid to famine-stricken Zimbabwe provided that it is used to purchase genetically modified maize. Food aid therefore is no longer an instrument of foreign policy. It has now become a major commercial activity, even if it means exploiting the famine victims and starving millions.

That is the official line at the USAID about the corn it has offered to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and Malawi, where an estimated 13 million people face severe hunger and possibly live under the spectre of an impending famine after two years of drought and floods.

For the genetically modified food industry, reeling under a growing rejection of its untested and harmful food products, there is money in hunger, starvation and death. Spearheaded by USAID, the industry has made it abundantly clear that it has only genetically modified maize to offer and was not willing to segregate. The WFP, which over the past few decades has for all practical purposes become an extension of USAID, was quick to put its rubber stamp. It had earlier helped the United States to reduce its grain surpluses by taking the genetically modified food for a mid-day meal programme for school children in Africa.

President Mugabe may not be able to hold for long. He had earlier told Zimbabwe's Parliament on July 23: "We fight the present drought with our eyes clearly set on the future of the agricultural sector, which is the mainstay of our economy. We dare not endanger its future through misplaced decisions based on acts of either desperation or expediency." But then, the biotechnology industry is using all its financial power to break down the African resistance. Once the GM food is accepted as humanitarian aid, it will be politically difficult for the African governments to oppose the corporate take-over of Africa's agricultural economy. For the industry, Africa provides a huge market.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa too has said that his people would rather die than eat toxic food. While Malawi says it has no choice but to accept GM maize, newspaper reports cite Mozambique, from where Malawi's food aid has to pass through, asking the WFP to cover it with plastic sheeting to avoid spillage while in transit.

Malawi incidentally is faced with famine after it was forced to sell maize to earn dollars for debt servicing. Explains Ann Pettifor of the New Economics Foundation: Just three months before the food crisis hit, Malawi was encouraged by the World Bank "to keep foreign exchange instead of storing grain" Why? Because foreign exchange is needed to repay debts. Creditors will not accept debt repayments in Malawian Kwachas. Or indeed in bags of maize. Only "greenbacks" or other hard currencies will do.

One of Malawi's key commercial creditors needed to have their debt repaid, according to Malawi's president, who in a BBC interview said the government "had been forced (to sell maize) in order to repay commercial loans taken out to buy surplus maize in previous years". President Muluzi said the IMF and the World Bank "insisted that, since Malawi had a surplus and the (government's) National Food Reserve Agency had this huge loan, they had to sell the maize to repay the commercial banks." So Malawi duly sold 28,000 tonnes of maize to Kenya. Under pressure from her creditors, led by the World Bank and the IMF, Malawi exchanged maize -- her people's staple diet -- for dollars.

And now, it is getting another loan to purchase genetically modified from the United States. Sure the USAID has been working overtime to create a market for its genetically modified food industry!

The debate on biotech food however goes still further. After all, it is the commercial interest of America's sunrise industry. The biotechnology industry has always been quick to use agricultural economists and Nobel laureates as effective 'loudspeakers' to promote the unhealthy food on gullible populations. One of its most distinguished spokesperson, Dr Per Pinstrup-Andersen, former director general of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, said that Zimbabwe was using the food to play politics. Referring to President Mugabe's recent land-reform policies, he added: "I think it is irresponsible. Unless they know they can get enough food from elsewhere that is not genetically modified."

And how much quantity of grain is required to tide over the food crisis in central and southern Africa? A million tonne, is all that the WFP estimates. Surprising that the WFP as well as Pinstrup-Andersen are not aware of any other source of getting non-GM foodgrains for millions of hungry Africans. Ironically, the country which is laden with overflowing grain silos and an unmanageable grain reserves is the one to have come to the rescue of a famine-stricken Ireland in the nineteenth century. The first shipload of grain that came for the starving Irish was from India. And more recently, India had provided food on 'humanitarian' basis to the war-torn Iraqis'. And soon after Bin Laden and his associates were forced out, India had stepped in to fight immediate hunger in Afghanistan early this year. Earlier too, India had come to the rescue of Ethiopia at the height of the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s.

With 65 million tonnes foodgrains stockpiled in the open, and that too of non genetically modified grain, WFP will do well to purchase instead from India. With the grain from the reserves priced at Rs 4 to Rs 5 a kg (less than 10 American cents a kilo), the WFP will not find cheaper food available anywhere. But this will not happen, in other words will not be allowed to happen. After all, the impending famine in Africa opens up a new market to sustain the multi-billion dollar US biotechnology industry. What happens in the bargain to the resulting crisis in human health and misery, and environment contamination from GMOs is none of the concern of the American grain merchants. In fact, it never was.

At the height of the 1974 famine in the newly born Bangladesh, the US had withheld 2.2 million tonnes of food aid to 'ensure that it abandoned plans to try Pakistani war criminals'. And a year later, when Bangladesh was faced with severe monsoons and imminent floods, the then US Ambassador to Bangladesh made it abundantly clear that the US probably could not commit food aid because of Bangladesh's policy of exporting jute to Cuba. And by the time Bangladesh succumbed to the American pressure, and stopped jute exports to Cuba, the food aid in transit was 'too late for famine victims'.

Food was then a political weapon. Food aid has now in addition become a commercial enterprise. Famine or no famine, the Shylocks of the grain trade must have their 'pound of flesh'.

Devinder Sharma is the author of In the Famine Trap

Article first published 07/08/02

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