3 December 2002
TWISTS IN THE MAIZE - FAMINE IN AFRICA
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
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.