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A rundown on Africa GM food aid debate

(Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- The following are articles from various sources about the debate over genetically modified food aid to southern African countries.

  • Plans to promote GM crops defeated

    By Geoffrey Lean in Johannesburg

    02 September 2002

    American plans to force genetically modified crops and food on to Third World countries were unexpectedly frustrated at the Earth Summit last night.

    After an impassioned plea from Ethiopia, ministers rejected clauses in the summit's plan of action which would have given the World Trade Organisation (WTO) powers over international treaties on the environment.


  • ZIMBABWE: Expert warns Zimbabwean government to refuse GM food aid Pangirayi Tangoona, a biotechnology expert at the University of Zimbabwe, has publicly warned his country’s government that accepting the offer of GM food aid from the West will bring major problems, and that a long term policy is needed on the issue.

    According to a report published yesterday [Monday] by the Zimbabwe Inter Africa News Agency, Tangoona explained: “Blind application of such knowledge and expertise is dangerous to us as a third world country.”

    He added that the offer of GM food to starving African nations was unfairly forcing acceptance of GM, and risking future agricultural exports, thereby increasing poverty in the long term. “Zimbabwe exports beef to the European Union. The body has stated that it will not buy beef if it detects genetically modified foods in it. That is their policy,” he said.


  • GM Food and Famine Becomes A Life-or-death Debate at World Summit - Joseph B. Verrengia , AP Science Writer, Associated Press, September 02, 2002

    http://www.alertwizard.com/display.php?link=14304559 Source: AgBioWorld Forum

    JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP)_ The debate is no longer academic. Genetically modified foods mean life or death for millions of starving Africans.

    The United Nations estimates 12.8 million people in six Southern African countries urgently need help to avoid catastrophe. The looming famine is caused by erratic weather and, in some countries, exacerbated by government mismanagement.

    Despite the immediate threat, the countries fear that GM food aid might damage their farm exports from more plentiful future harvests. And some politicians worry the food may hold unknown health risks. International aid agencies estimate the region needs roughly 1 million metric tons (1.1 million tons) of grain. The United States has offered 490,000 metric tons (540,000 tons) thus far.

    The problem? Corn and other grains grown in America almost certainly have been genetically modified. At least one of the recipients _ Zambia _ doesn't want GM foods to cross its borders. Zimbabwe also initially refused the GM food, then agreed to accept the grain provided it is milled into flour so it cannot be planted. Mozambique is considering similar stipulations.

    The controversy surrounding GM foods and hunger has polarized delegates at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. Ten years ago, when U.N. delegates met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, GM crops still were in the laboratory. Now the technology is one of the world's most contentious environmental issues.

    A GM crop is created when researchers splice genes from one organism, such as a bacterium, into an unrelated crop to confer traits that will enhance its commercial properties, such as insect resistance or drought tolerance. GM crops are extensively planted by the largest grain producers, including the U.S., Argentina, Canada, and China.

    But fears of "genetic pollution" _ bioengineered crops cross-pollinating with native plants _ have kept the crops out of some European nations. Because the crops are more suited for large-scale agribusiness, they are only beginning to be introduced in some developing nations, including South Africa and Kenya. And these aren't even the sort of super-bioengineered experimental plants that scientists use to manufacture contraceptives, antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals in their leaves.

    GM advocates, including U.S. officials, believe Zambia and other skittish nations have become the victims of "green propagandists" who are playing politics with the food crisis.

    "It is unconscionable," said molecular geneticist C.S. Prakash of Tuskegee University in Alabama. "Ask a starving Zambian child if she would like to have the luxury of that bogus debate right now," he said.

    Industry executives are equally perplexed. Not only do hundreds of millions of people _ including most Americans _ safely eat the crops already, but growing more might avert further famine, while protecting the environment by reducing pesticides, they said.

    "In places like Africa, you could substitute the need to spray," said Heinz Imhof, chairman of Syngenta, a multinational seed firm that announced it will forego patent royalties on GM seeds in the U.N.'s neediest nations. "You don't know what insects will appear and when they do it is often too late."

    Environmentalists claim the United States is using the looming famine to dump GM grain on hungry countries. Farmers inevitably will plant some, they said, thus taking an irreversible step into a genetic future not of their choosing. "The most important thing right now is to provide food aid," said Sidi Diawara of the British aid group Oxfam. "But countries must have the choice. You cannot force them to eat what they normally would not eat. That is inhuman."

    Zambian officials say their fear of genetic contamination is rooted in economics. After all, 130,000 Angolans and Congolese in refugee camps in Zambia already eat GM food supplied by the U.N.'s World Food Program.

    But the U.S. grain might taint Zambia's status with export markets that want certified GM-free products. "That will cost thousands of jobs," Zambian Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana said. Officials also worried there might be health risks.

    The major U.N. food and health agencies have endorsed GM foods. But at the summit, some U.N. officials have sidestepped the scrap. The world's grain supply is sufficiently large that starving nations don't necessarily have to accept GM food, they said.

    Uganda and Tanzania reportedly have offered Zambia non-GM food aid. But the political and distribution details are complex. "It is not a matter of availability; it is a matter of access," said Food and Agriculture Organization assistant director-general Jacques Paul Eckebil.

    Eckebil said GM grain will remain controversial until nations ratify a 2-year old protocol regulating their trade _ an agreement the U.S. rejects. "Until then, every country must take responsibility for itself," Eckebil said

  • Zimbabwe Rules Out GM Food Aid, Won't Talk To US

    - Randy Fabi, Reuters, September 2, 2002

    JOHANNESBURG - Zimbabwe will not accept genetically modified (GM) foodstuffs as part of mostly U.S. aid shipments to its famine-threatened population, its agriculture minister, Joseph Made, said on the weekend.

    "We do not accept genetically modified material into Zimbabwe," Made told Reuters in Johannesburg following the arrival of President Robert Mugabe for the Earth Summit.

    Of six southern African nations threatened by famine, Zambia has also rejected GM grain. Most of it comes from the United States, which is providing the bulk of food aid in the region. Zambia has said it shares European fears that GM is not safe and wants its own scientists to probe the issue. Western nations have accused Mugabe's government of hurting output in southern Africa's "breadbasket" through land seizures from white farmers.

    Asked if he was prepared to discuss the aid issue with U.S. officials at the Earth Summit, Made said: "There is nothing to discuss...You can't use the Zimbabwean population as guinea pigs...There is no way we can bring that material into Zimbabwe, which is a very clean environment."

  • Zambian Health Minister Defends Ban on GM Food Aid

    - Reuters, August 31

    Zambia defended its ban on genetically altered food aid on Saturday and said it would take several weeks for a final decision on whether the food was safe for 2.4 million Zambians facing starvation.

    Southern Africa's worst food crisis in a decade, affecting 13 million people in six countries, has fired a debate over the use of genetically modified (GM) food. Zambia has barred GM food imports until its scientists establish through their own tests whether the food, sourced mostly from the United States where GM crops are widespread, is safe for human consumption.

    "What we said was we don't have enough information, so we went to scientists and asked: Are GM foods safe?," Zambian Health Minister Brian Chituwo said during an event at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. "We decided to go cautiously. Had we imposed the decision as government, the civil instability as a result would have been terrible," he added. Chituwo said a decision should come "hopefully by the end of September."

    Earlier on Saturday, Zimbabwe's Agriculture Minister Joseph Made told Reuters that his country would not accept genetically modified food as part of mostly U.S. aid shipments to its famine-threatened population. "We do not accept genetically modified material into Zimbabwe," Made said. World Food Program officials said, however, that Zimbabwe has previously accepted GM food aid.

    About six million Zimbabweans, half the country's population, are battling food shortages caused by drought and the disruption caused by controversial government land reforms. The debate over GM foods has fueled fears that the issue could upset a huge relief effort in the drought-hit region.

    The European Union's mission head in Zambia, Ambjorn Berglund, said on Friday it might not be possible to source enough non-GM maize in the region and in good time to address the needs of people suffering the consequences of drought.

    The United Nations ( news - web sites) food body said on Friday it would not pressure countries to accept GM food, but it urged governments to "think carefully" before rejecting it.

    "I am not going to tell them to accept or not accept," said Food and Agriculture Organization ( news - web sites) (FAO) Director-General Jacques Diouf, who hopes to meet officials from the six affected countries on the sidelines of the summit.

    Diouf said that based on available scientific evidence, the GM food aid was "not likely to present a human health risk" to the millions of people in need. "Their plight must weigh heavily in government decision-making," Diouf said.

  • Biotech Fears Endanger Starving Africans - USDA

    - Reuters, USA, September 2, 2002

    WASHINGTON - U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman last week sharply criticized African leaders and environmental groups who have shunned genetically modified food aid, saying their actions are endangering millions of starving people in the region.

    "It is disgraceful that instead of helping hungry people, these individuals and organizations are embarking on an irresponsible campaign to spread misinformation and create an atmosphere of fear," Veneman said in a statement.

    Nearly 13 million people in six countries - Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique - face starvation from drought and disease, which have devastated crops. Zambia, where 2.4 million people face starvation, has refused large shipments of biotech food aid until its scientists can determine the foods are safe for human consumption. The head of the U.N. World Food Program said last week the controversy could soon halt aid distributions in Zambia.

    "Now is not the time to inflame the debate about biotechnology," Veneman said. "Now is the time to feed starving people."

    The United States is the world's largest producer of crops that are genetically modified to make them resistant to pests or to withstand herbicides that kill nearby weeds. Washington is providing half of all food aid to southern Africa. African nations fear domestic farmers would plant the biotech crops in their fields, jeopardizing farm exports to Europe, which has strict standards on genetically modified food.

    Zimbabwe, which has also resisted U.S. food shipments, agreed last week to accept 17,000 tonnes of U.S. corn, which will be milled to prevent any chance of contaminating the country's domestic crops. Green groups have long campaigned against the use of genetically modified foods, saying not enough research has been done to ensure the new technology was safe for the environment and public health.

    Veneman said these groups have "greatly hindered" food aid efforts by providing "misguided statements about the U.S. food system." Veneman's unusually strong statements follow similar criticism expressed by Andrew Natsios, administrator of U.S. Agency for International Development, last week.

  • Vandana Shiva: India's Champion Of Biodiversity Through The Seed

    - Dina Kraft, Associated Press, September 2, 2002

    JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ "Let the seed be exhaustless, let it never run out," says Vandana Shiva, reciting the prayer Indian farmers have offered for generations while planting crops.

    For Shiva, India's biodiversity guru, preservation of traditional seeds is key to winning the battle against bioengineered farming methods and the system of toxic pesticides, chemicals and unsustainable agriculture she says it creates. Shiva, 50, has been busy at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, billed as the largest ever gathering on the environment.

    Racing between venues and audiences, she has spoken before world leaders and activists, and taken to the airwaves spreading her word: agricultural biodiversity is under attack.

    "The planet is in crisis," she says, leaning forward, her large brown eyes flashing. A black wool shawl covers her sari, and she waves her hands in fluid motions creating a blur of silver rings and conviction. Sitting at an outdoor cafeteria at the People's Earth Summit, one of the many side venues shadowing the summit, Shiva's voice rises above the thumping sound of Congo drums and chatter.

    Farmers worldwide are turning to genetically modified seeds to increase their crop output and in the process are destroying traditional crops and methods of organic farming, she says. Shiva says farmers have been driven into steep debt buying the expensive seeds, which must be bought anew every year since they cannot be replanted as organic seeds are. The farmers also must invest in costly irrigation systems and pesticides to accommodate the new system which, she says, often wipes out their savings.

    She says there is a link between farmer suicides in India and the debt they have run up growing genetically modified crops.

    For Shiva, a quantum physicist turned ecological activist, it all goes back to the seed. In Sanskrit, the word for seed is bija, or "that from which life arises."

    "It has become the metaphor for me for all my work in ecology," she says. It lead her to help found the organization Navdanya, which forms seed banks and trains Indian farmers to produce traditional crops without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. To date, she says, about 100,000 farmers have returned to traditional, organic farming methods in villages now dubbed "freedom zones."

    Navdanya has opened an organic market in New Delhi to sell the produce. Bioengineered crops may work in the short term, Vandana says, but because they are costly and deprive the soil of moisture and nutrients, ultimately they cannot be sustained.

    Proponents of genetically modified crops argue they are the answer to helping eradicate world hunger _ the high yields of food they produce essential for regions plagued by drought and floods. Shiva, who advises the Indian government on biodiversity, traces her path from academia to what she calls "action research," to the example set by her parents, followers of activists in India's independence movement.

    Her mother, a school inspector, became a farmer after independence, her father a lawyer and soldier, worked in forest conservation. "So I got my forest exposure from him, and my farm exposure from her, and my passion for freedom and rebellion against subjection of an unjust immoral kind from both of them," says Shiva with a chuckle.

    When she decided to leave academia to become a full time environmental activist in 1981, she initially set up shop in her mother's cowshed. She has since moved on to the world stage but says her message to leaders remains simple: "They are basically children of the earth, they are not (its) masters."