1."GM is a high risk technology" - South African Council of Churches
2.An agricultural and trade expert challenges the United States' food aid policies
There are varying accounts of whether a major food aid shipment held up in Johannesburg, ostensibly over concerns that it might be GM-contaminated, has finally gotten into Zimbabwe.
Even if it has been held up at the border, it looks probable that it will get into the country within the next 24 hrs.
And it's badly needed. Hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless there thanks to Robert Mugabe's razing of settlements around Zimbabwe's urban centres.
As one commentator notes though, "As frustrating as Mugabe's behaviour is [over the food aid], there are legitimate reasons for skepticism behind the dictator's paranoia."
This is because historically, American food aid policies "were set up to benefit American business interests, rather than constructed to deliver aid effectively," Mother Jones magazine reports in an interview with Sophia Murphy, co-author of the report "U.S. Food Aid: Time to Get it Right". (item 2)
The US is a signatory of the 1999 Food Aid Convention, which recognises that food aid should be bought from the most cost effective source, be culturally acceptable and if possible purchased locally so that regional markets do not suffer. However, the US pretty much does the opposite on all of these, with USAID boasting that, "The principal beneficiary of America's foreign assistance programs has always been the United States."
The real irony in the present case, though, is that the food coming in from Jo'burg is courtesy not of the US but of the South African Council of Churches which, after listening to all sides of the debate, publicly affirmed that "GM is a high risk technology" and called for "a moratorium on any further permits granted for GMOs in South Africa." (item 1)
Mugabe should quit stalling the humanitarian aid of the SACC who are the last people to knowingly force GM-contaminated grain onto those already in need of succour.
1.Statement of the South African Council of Churches (SACC) , May 2004
As participants in the first SACC consultation on GMOs held at the ESCOM Convention Centre, Midrand, South Africa from 26-28 May 2004:
We welcome the initiative taken by the SACC in convening this consultation on a topic which needs in-depth and more urgent and focussed attention by Christians and the churches.
We thank the organisers for providing us the opportunity to enhance our understanding of GMOs by means of a well-balanced program, thus enabling us to broaden and deepen our contribution to the debate. We were given the opportunity to listen to presentations from different sides of the debate, and to reflect on and affirm our own Christian and indigenous spiritual heritage and traditions.
We are concerned about:
1. The manner in which complex issues on GMOs are treated by proponents of GMOs and South African legislation in a 'purely technical' manner, delinking science from ethics, values, economic and political ideology, and our African communal spirituality about life and food.
2. The link between the promotion of GMOs and neo-liberal economic globalization with its inherent unequal power relations;
3. The scientific uncertainties related to the long term economic, nutritional, health, ecological risks of gene transfer technologies in view of the irreversibility in the release and use of GE products;
4. The elevating of natural scientists and civil servants to be experts and adjudicators in regard to issues of GMOs even as they pertain to human life, the environment and the spirituality related to life;
5. The insufficient representation of relevant sciences (including ethics) to advise government, and the apparent non-independence of advisors to government and government institutions in the development and implementation of GMO policy;
6. The lack of public awareness and debate on GMOs, including our own lack of participation in GMO policy developments;
7. The overriding profit motive and supremacy of the market over issues such as human and environmental safety and health, and food supply;
8. The erosion of the sovereignty of national states, democracy and transparency in policy processes of international agreements and conventions related to food standards and agriculture which make domestic issues subject to trade concerns;
9. The commodification of life and monopolisation of knowledge through the patenting of genes and living organisms as well as indigenous science, products and practices.
We appreciate the role played by people and organisations outside the church who have committed themselves and their organizations to fight for socio-economic justice by resisting the unbridled introduction and use of GMOs and products.
1. Our conviction that there is sufficient food for all our people, but the problem remains inequitable access to and maldistribution of food.
2. Our commitment to the option for the poor, marginalized and disempowered. And as far as GMOs are concerned we are further driven by our vision of the dignity of the human person; the common good; solidarity; subsidiarity; integrity of creation; socio-economic and environmental justice.
3. That food and life is a gift from God and we are co-workers and custodians with God to sustain creation and life and the abundance thereof.
4. The power and sustainability of indigenous knowledge, practices and resources.
We commit ourselves to broaden and deepen:
1. our understanding of GMOs and the mechanisms dealing with these matters on local, national, regional and international levels;
2. our theological reflection and action in addressing the introduction, use and impact of GMOs and this biotechnology on food security;
3. our networks of solidarity and cooperation in South Africa, in the region, the continent and beyond;
4. our awareness of the organic link between food, HIV and AIDS, poverty and GMOs.
We call on the SACC and its members to:
1. Take the issue of the right to food seriously and co-own the issue of GMOs as an issue of justice in line with our longstanding commitment to solidarity with the poor and marginalised.
2. Redouble its efforts and programmes aimed at the eradication of poverty.
3. Learn from and be in solidarity with the struggles of the poor related to food sovereignty and the impact of GMOs as promoted by the dominant and fundamentally unjust economic ideology, systems and mechanisms of neo-liberal economic globalisation. We cannot but denounce and resist with the poor this ungodly ideology, since it affects the core of our common faith and vision for the world.
4.Undertake and facilitate the generation of prophetic/contextual theologies and resource material for education, liturgies, bible studies, as well as theological reflection and research at academic institutions which will empower the church to pursue its stand on GMOs.
5. Establish a pool of resources in terms of persons and institutions inside and outside the church to assist the SACC in a variety of engagements /interventions such as: dialogues with scientists; private sector companies; government; civil society; public awareness and education; and, policy interventions in national, regional and international forums.
6. Call on government, while it is still allowing GM technology to operate and have an impact on our environment to:
-- affirm that GM is a high risk technology;
-- impose a moratorium on any further permits granted for GMOs in South Africa;
-- take all measures necessary to make South Africa compliant with the Cartegena protocol.
7. Develop regional and continental solidarity and cooperation related to the churches' interventions on GMOs.
8 .Develop localised campaigns and advocacy initiatives.
9. Agree on a clear strategic planning process and eventual reporting on progress made towards achieving its commitments.
10. Make this document public, and bring it to the attention of the member churches and other stakeholders including small-holder farmers, government, scientists, private sector, and civil society organisations.
28 May, 2004*
2.Towards a Better Food Aid System: An Interview with Sophia Murphy:
An agricultural and trade expert challenges the United States' overly-rigid and wasteful food aid policies
Interviewed By Clint Hendler
August 9, 2005
As recent headlines from Niger show, the world has not yet figured out how to stop famine and devastating hunger among the very poorest. More than enough food is grown worldwide to feed everyone on the earth, but according to the United Nations World Food Program, disasters such as war, crop failure, or drought””combined with structural problems such as poor governmental decisions, bad transportation, and brutal poverty””all conspire to keep one in seven people in the world hungry, and one in three children underweight.
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a Minneapolis-based research and advocacy group, recently released a report taking the United State's food aid polices to task. Sophia Murphy, who co-authored "U.S. Food Aid: Time to Get it Right" with Kathleen McAfee, argues that the country's food aid system is need of major reform. The problems stem from one crucial fact: aid policies were set up to benefit American business interests, rather than constructed to deliver aid effectively. The report finds U.S. expenditures highly inefficient, while failing to give adequate attention to promoting long term food security in recipient nations.
Mother Jones recently spoke with Murphy, who directs the IATP's Trade Program, about the report and the reforms it recommends.
Mother Jones: Can you define the different types of food aid?
Sophia Murphy: Food aid includes any donation given to people who don't have access to food in other ways””because they're poor, or their own crops have been destroyed. In the case of aid from the United States, it's either food that has been bought in the U.S. and shipped over, or it's cash that the U.S. gives to a country or a relief agency so that they can go buy food from somewhere else. Usually it's charitable.
There are three broad kinds of food aid. "Program" food includes government-to-government transfers of food, given as a form of economic support. There's "emergency" aid””which is what we're seeing right now in Niger, and saw in the wake of the tsunami””where about half of the U.S. food aid budget goes. And then there's "project" food aid which is either given to assist long-term food programs, or else it's allowed to be monetized””meaning that the aid can be sold in order to raise funds for operations or other development projects. By law, the U.S. government can only give 25 percent of its food aid as cash””the rest must actually be shipped as food. And the vast majority of that food must be grown, processed and packaged in the United States.
As well, the United States””almost uniquely””also sells food as parts of its "program food" aid. It offers other countries terms that are less than the commercial rate, and the recipient government can pay the aid back over 30 years, which is a very generous rate. The recipient government can then turn around and sell that food in the market in their country, and then they use the money they make off the sale to support other budgetary expenditures.
MJ: That's interesting. So the United States can actually sell food and call it aid?
SM: The U.S. is pretty much alone in selling food aid. South Korea occasionally sells food aid to North Korea, but that's the only other example. And this kind of aid used to make up the majority of American food aid, though it's dropped to comprising about 10 percent of all food aid. But it's still there, and it still goes out. It's pretty contentious. So there is pressure to see the program food aid component ended. It's an anachronism. Most donor governments are trying to rule it out, saying that if you sell food aid, it's no longer food aid, and it should count differently.
MJ: What do you mean count differently? Who is counting?
SM: Well, the major donor countries are members of something called the Food Aid Convention, and at this convention they declare the minimum amount that they plan on donating””although they set this level so low that there is really no danger of missing it. The real issue is that European nations like France””who have been criticized for their large agricultural subsidies””are in turn pointing fingers at the United States' program food aid, claiming that it's essentially an agricultural subsidy. That issue has held up the most recent convention, and there's some chance that the debate will be settled in the WTO. I think that would be very bad, however, since the WTO's power is distributed based on the basis of its member nation's economic power. That makes it a poor forum to make decisions about food aid.
MJ: How did the U.S. develop its current food aid policies?
SM: These programs were set up in the 1950s, with an eye towards Cold War diplomacy in the Third World. The United States had post-war agricultural surpluses, so American food sellers were interested in developing future markets for their goods, while still getting paid for extra yields. So altruistic concerns were somewhat secondary.
MJ: Why do places like Sub-Saharan Africa have serious food security issues?
SM: That's a very complicated question. In addition to contemporary political factors, it goes back to colonialism, which essentially geared these economies for extraction. Then in the immediate postwar area, governments were eager to build up industrial sectors in these countries, so the development of indigenous agricultural capabilities lagged behind””especially so long as these African countries could rely on Cold War food aid.
Later on, many African countries had to liberalize their agricultural commodity boards as a condition of getting loans or other forms of economic assistance. Certainly these boards were often corrupt, or mismanaged or had other serious problems. But as national entities, the boards did a fairly good job at allocating resources to remote parts of the country. If you're a Malian cotton farmer and don't live near good transport, an international cotton buyer isn't going to invest in your crop, he'll go elsewhere. But your nation's commodity board might have invested. The boards provided other supports that the private sector just hasn't found cash-worthy, like agricultural extension services. And now that they’re gone, in many cases it's hurting both domestic food production, and production of export crops that could be used to buy food abroad.
MJ:What are some of the biggest problems with the United States' current food aid system?
SM: It's very inefficient. For about every two dollars spent, only one dollar's worth of food actually reaches a recipient. The bulk of money spent is actually used to buy crops and ship them abroad, even if cheaper crops can be found closer to the recipient population. And shipping crops is very expensive, not to mention slow.
Cash aid, which is far more efficient, accounts for under 10 percent of the food aid budget. The Bush Administration tried to double that amount, but Congress didn't approve.
MJ: So what kind of reforms does your report call for?
SM: Well, the biggest step would be to move to a cash-based aid system, without the usual requirements that the crops come from the U.S. Donors should try wherever possible to buy foods regionally. This would be far more efficient. The U.S. also needs to stop selling food aid and stop allowing its food aid to be monetized.
The main reason reform is so difficult is that there aren't strong domestic political constituencies that have an interest in moving to an all cash based system. The nongovernmental organizations would seem to be the most likely to push for these changes. But they are happy to be getting any aid at all, and worry about endangering the flow of food by pushing too hard for reform. And because many of these organizations get funds that they need from monetization of food aid, they actually have an interest in perpetuating the system.
I certainly worry about endangering what little aid is coming now. I'm not out in the field handing out food, so that makes it easier to call for these sorts of risky changes; but for me, the excuses are no longer good enough.
MJ: Who are the domestic interests benefiting from the current food aid system?
SM: Large agricultural companies like Cargill get the bulk of the benefits. Because of the ways the laws are written, and certain purchasing requirements, there are only a handful of agricultural companies that can source these foods. And because of these requirements and specific requests””like this food must be able to leave from this port on this day””the government usually pays a bit more than market price to buy them.
There's also a requirement that 75 percent of the country's food aid must be transported on a U.S.-flagged ship. Unfortunately, the American shipping industry has been growing weaker over the years, and it's become very expensive to use. The U.S. could send a lot more food if this requirement weren't there, because it would save a lot of money. But this is well off the food-aid-policy radar, because the provision requiring it is tucked somewhere obscure in U.S. maritime law.
MJ: What about farmers? It's often said that they need this sort of support.
SM: Farm groups often line up with the agricultural lobby when it comes to votes on food aid. But the money is not going to farmers; it's going to agricultural conglomerates. Food aid purchases are such a small percentage of total U.S. agricultural output that they don't make any appreciable difference in prices. Now, there are a small handful of crops that are grown pretty much solely to send abroad as food aid””like some kinds of lentils. And farmers who grew them might be in trouble if the sourcing requirements were lifted. But it’s a very small amount.
Now, of course, U.S. food aid purchases are very, very small when compared with the total U.S. market. It would still be a small amount if the foods were sourced in countries nearer to needy areas, but it would be relatively larger. It could be help to encourage agriculture, and contribute to regional food security. Which, the way the money is being spent now, isn't happening at all.
Clint Hendler is an editorial intern at Mother Jones