Rumpus Over GMOs in Africa
EXCERPT: "Well over a year after the controversy [over Zambia's rejection of US GM food aid] died down, the United States Health Secretary Tommy Thompson visited Zambia where he criticised in very strong terms the rejection of the GMO food aid and linked future American assistance to Zambia in its fight against HIV/AIDS, to accepting GMO food aid."
Rumpus Over GMOs
by Okey Ndiribe
Vanguard (Lagos, Nigeria), April 20, 2005
Participants at a recent two-day conference on genetically modified organisms concluded that their safety is not yet guaranteed across the world.
THERE are fears that genetically modified food crops which have been widely rejected internationally may have been quietly introduced into the country. This fear was expressed by the Executive Director of Environmental Rights Action (ERA), Mr. Nninmo Bassey, while speaking at a recent international conference on genetically modified organisms held in Lagos.
Nninmo explained that the fear is based on the fact that Nigeria has been receiving food aid from the United States of America whose government has been in the forefront of the campaign to promote consumption of GMOs in the Third World. An official from the Federal Ministry of Environment who attended the conference confirmed that the ministry was approached by the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) for guidelines on what type of food aid should be received from foreign countries; but that was the end of the matter. The official could not say whether anybody from the ministry knew exactly what type of food aid the Federal Government eventually received from the United States under the 'food for progress arrangement'.
Nevertheless, the fear expressed by Nninmo was shared by other Nigerian participants at the conference. This apprehension is based on the attitude of the government of the United States towards third world countries that need assistance to tackle food shortages.
For instance, it is widely known that since the United States Senate passed a law in 2003 which stipulated that third world countries which want American assistance in the fight against HIV/AIDS must also be ready to accept genetically modified food aid, the US government has attempted to pressurise some Third World countries facing food shortages to accept this condition. The Act which is known as the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act expressly urges African leaders to accept genetically modified food aid, which implies it is a condition for the release of assistance funds to combat the listed diseases.
One such country is Zambia. According to a Zambian participant at the conference, Mrs. Bernadette Lubozhya, the American government had offered food aid to her country in 2002 when some regions in Zambia suffered food shortages.
Said she: "The American government had sent 50,000 tonnes of GMO maize as food aid through the World Food programme ( WFP)." Zambians actually suspected that there was an initial conspiracy between their government officials and those of WFP.
According to Lubozhya: "Immediately the Zambian government announced that there was a food shortage in some regions in the country, WFP donated the GMO food to the Zambian government". She added that the food donation was eventually rejected based on the advice given to the government by non-governmental organisations. This did not go down well with both the Americans and WFP. It was therefore not surprising to people of the Southern African country when WFP stopped them from benefitting from a European Union donation extended to the country during the period of food shortage. The EU had routed the donation through the WFP which then rejected suggestions that the donation be used to purchase food crops from regions of Zambia where there were food surpluses for distribution to areas that experienced famine.
The development sparked off an international campaign against Zambia which portrayed the country's government as heartless for rejecting the GMO food donation, while the people were dying of starvation.
The American government's fury over the rejection of the GMO maize smouldered for long. Well over a year after the controversy died down, the United States Health Secretary Tommy Thompson visited Zambia where he criticised in very strong terms the rejection of the GMO food aid and linked future American assistance to Zambia in its fight against HIV/AIDS, to accepting GMO food aid.
However, some observers of America's posture during the Zambian controversy pointed out that the US government's position was hypocritical since it has not yet permitted human consumption of GMOs within the United States. This position was buttressed by Lubozhya who stated that "only one third of the maize consumed in the US was GMO maize." She further stated that even this relatively small quantity of the food crop was only utilised as feed stock.
Lubozhya's position was supported by several other participants at the conference. According to Mr. Juan Lopez, a participant who represented the Italian Chapter of Friends of the Earth at the conference, "Starlink (which is a GMO maize) was introduced in the United States as animal feed". Lopez further said that somewhere along the line, starlink was found to have entered the human food chain by mistake and was detected in some food products displayed in supermarkets.
He continued: "As soon as it was discovered that starlink had entered the human food chain, the relevant American authorities began to withdraw the affected products from the shelves of various supermarkets where they were found. And this process lasted for two years."
Lopez told other participants that many advanced countries of the world including the European Union, Japan and Korea had already rejected GMOs adding that Bolivia and Guatemala rejected GMOs earlier this year.
Countries that have rejected GMOs have taken the decision based on several reasons. Among the factors that have been cited include its yet unpredictable environmental effects that could turn hazardous. The negative environmental effects which resulted with the introduction of GMOs in Asia were mentioned by Asian participants at the confab. These included increase in soil salinity, water logging, loss of green manure and increase in the number of pests. According to Neth Dano, a Filipino participant at the conference, about 500 pests emerged in her country after 'green revolution' rice heavily supported with chemicals -much like GMOs- was introduced in that country. Dano further said that the impact of the new rice which was supposed to increase yield of the crop was devastating to farmers economically adding that the green revolution rice did not reduce poverty as envisaged by the government which introduced it but rather increased poverty.
"Many farmers who got involved in planting the 'green revolution' rice had to sell their land to pay their debts", she said.
The story of Bt. cotton, a GMO cash crop in Asia is not rosy either. According to Lim Li Lin who represented Friends of the Earth of Indonesia at the conference, "Bt. cotton (a GMO crop) farmers also suffered losses when they planted the crop on their farms". This was contrary to the success stories they were told before the crop was introduced to them. She said the situation was even worse in India.
She continued: "In India over 200 farmers committed suicide in the Uttar Pradesh region due to losses sustained on their farms after they planted Bt. cotton".
Citing studies that were carried out to assess the performance of the crop in India, Lin said only 29 percent of Bt. cotton farmers reported that they realised profit while 82 percent of non bt. cotton farmers realised profits within the same year. She further pointed out that all the claims of the company that introduced Bt. cotton to the Indian farmers were debunked within the very first year of the farmers' experimentation with the crop. Among the claims were that Bt. cotton would require less use of pesticides and reduce cultivation cost.
In Indonesia, Monsanto, the leading American firm involved in the global production of genetically modified crops, also told farmers in that country rosy tales about their future in agriculture if they introduced GMO crops into their farms. But the farmers responded too slowly for Monsanto's liking. So the company decided to bribe top officials of that country's government to convince the farmers to plant GMO seeds on their farms. All went well with the shady deal until sometime last year when the bubble burst. The United States Government fined Monsanto after it found out that the company had bribed 140 Indonesian Government officials with 700,000 dollars to work for acceptance of the crop in that country. Monsanto quietly agreed to pay the fine.
It is widely believed that Monsanto has resorted to bribing government officials in several parts of the world where GMO crops have been welcome by the authorities.
Recounting her experience about the attitude of the Filipino government towards GMOs, Dano said that early this year the Bureau for Plant Industry in that country approved the planting of Bt. corn without even making effort to encourage an independent assessment of the possible impact of the crop on that country's environment. She further said that farmers who were knowledgeable about GMO crops in the Phillipines had refused to speak out for fear of victimisation.