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Thursday, 14 November, 2002, 09:58 GMT
Famine and the GM debate
Poor maize crop
Africa does not produce enough food for its population
Amid the efforts to cope with a famine threatening 30 million Africans, a row is raging over genetically modified (GM) food aid.

Zambia is refusing to accept any assistance that includes it, and its neighbours have agreed to accept GM grain only if it is milled before distribution.

These countries are concerned that letting in food aid containing genetically modified material will lead to the planting of seeds and the contamination of domestic crops.

Famine victims
Many believe famine relief should come before the GM debate
None of the countries has developed a clear policy on the long-term effects or value of GM technology.

Most of the aid containing GM foods comes from the US.

The US Agency for International Development (US Aid) says that non-GM maize (corn) was unavailable and that it is "despicable" if opponents of GM foods are risking lives.

Aid agencies and relief charities are split over whether famine-stricken countries should accept GM foods.

Launch new window : Southern Africa famine
In pictures: Southern Africa famine

Disagreements focus on whether emergency needs should take precedence over long-term considerations about the value of GM crops for Africa.

Food for the hungry

As famine took hold in southern Africa, many countries were opposed to GM food supplies.

Zimbabwe and Mozambique resisted them and Mozambicans were concerned about them being transported across their territory in case seeds contaminated its crops.

Zambia then joined the countries opposing GM.

They were worried that if genetically modified grain was allowed into their countries, seeds might be planted before the governments had carried out any research or formulated policies on the GM issue.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa
President Mwanawasa says GM food is "poison"
Most of the countries were won over by deals between donors, aid agencies and recipients under which GM maize was milled before distribution so that seeds could not be planted.

This satisfied Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi.

Angola, Lesotho and Swaziland have not adopted positions on GM but have not refused aid containing genetically modified food.

The head of the World Food Programme (WFP), James Morris, said that the decision by Zimbabwe would enable his agency to do its job and supply food to the hungry.

Poison or panacea?

Zambia held out against GM foods and has stopped the WFP distributing GM maize in a refugee camp.

Before this decision, the government sent a scientific team to the US, South Africa, Britain and Belgium to examine the issue of genetically modified crops.

Its report led the government to maintain the ban, with President Levy Mwanawasa calling GM food "poison".

There are serious long-term issues here: the position to be adopted by countries towards the growing of GM crops and relations between those countries and the multinational companies which supply GM foods or seeds.

The Panos Institute in London, which provides an information service specialising in issues for developing countries, says that most of the countries concerned, including Zambia, have not developed clear policies on GM crops.

Panos says that debate on the issue is proving "heated and difficult" with the anti-GM voices tending to drown out the voices in favour.

Fingerprinting at an aid centre
Aid agencies are in a difficult position
There are major disagreements between international organisations over whether GM foods are right for Africa.

A UN investigator into food policy, Jean Ziegler, told the London-based Independent newspaper that he was "against the theory of the multinational corporations who say if you are against hunger you must be for genetically modified organisms".

"There is plenty of natural, normal, good food in the world to nourish the double of humanity," he says.

For and against

Charities like Oxfam and Action Aid oppose the introduction of GM crops into Africa saying that food shortages result not from a lack of food but from the inability of poor countries to buy it.

Action Aid says that if GM seeds are supplied to Africa, "farmers will be caught in a vicious circle, increasingly dependent on a small number of giant multinationals".

But many Western governments, including Britain, believe that the introduction of GM crops would boost yields in Africa.

A consortium called the African Biotechnology Stakeholders' Forum has been established by GM proponents to encourage the use of GM crops.

Its director, Dr John Wafula, says that as an African, "my crusade is to ensure that my people are not dying of starvation".

He says he wants to see food production grow to keep pace with the growing population.

African countries clearly still have to look at the GM option as part of broader agricultural strategies and the debate will continue.

But in the short term, most countries have accepted that GM food can stave off hunger even if its arrival is greeted with suspicion by their governments.

Is Zambia right to refuse GM food?



6860 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

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See also:

31 Oct 02 | Africa
06 Sep 02 | Africa
03 Sep 02 | Africa
14 May 02 | Science/Nature
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