The GM Conundrum: Will Starving People Care If the Food They Receive Is Genetically Modified? Probably Not, but Some Governments Are Being Extremely Wary about Letting GM Food-Aid Enter Their Countries. (Agriculture)

By Nevin, Tom | African Business, October 2002 | Go to article overview

The GM Conundrum: Will Starving People Care If the Food They Receive Is Genetically Modified? Probably Not, but Some Governments Are Being Extremely Wary about Letting GM Food-Aid Enter Their Countries. (Agriculture)


Nevin, Tom, African Business


The US lost its cool with Zambia last month and threatened to divert some 50,000 tons of genetically modified (GM) maize to other countries in the region if the Zambian government refused to accept it. The parcel was part of America's contribution of emergency food aid to famine-stricken areas of the sub-continent. However, Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa said the government would not allow it into the country until it had held consultations with its experts to determine whether or not it was safe for human consumption.

Zambia's reluctance has peeved the Americans. "We have gone to some parts of Zambia where people are almost starving," reported exasperated US Congressman, Earl Hillard. "The hunger situation is very grave. But if the government continues to refuse GM maize, we will divert it to other countries that will accept it." At stake are the lives of 13m people in six countries in desperate need of food.

Hillard's frustration sums up the mounting pique of Western countries at the reluctance of some of the worst famine-affected countries in southern Africa to receive and distribute GM maize. "Will a person, on the point of starvation, quibble about whether or not his plate of porridge is GM?" asked a World Food Programme volunteer in Zimbabwe. "Millions and millions of people of the US and Europe eat GM foods. It is safe and often more nutritious than non-GM."

But the governments of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique aren't taking any chances although not all for the same reasons.

Some, like Zambia's, fear the GM maize contributions could be hazardous to their peoples' health. Others, like Zimbabwe for example, fear that local farmers could use the GM kernels as seed to grow crops and these could seriously impair the pollinated crops already being grown.

That would undermine grain seed variety development programmes through crosspollination. The Zimbabwean authorities initially went as far as banning transportation of GM-produced maize supplies from crossing its territory by road or rail en route to other countries in the region.

SAFETY BARRIERS AGAINST GM

The Zimbabwe and Malawi governments subsequently relented and accepted their first shipments of maize, on the proviso that it is first ground into meal. Consignments of 55,000 tons a months into Zimbabwe will be closely checked to ensure that the GM grain does not enter the eco-system.

"Our biosafety board and plant scientists from the Agriculture Ministry will check it at port, check how it is transported in Zimbabwe and if they want to make further specification do so, to ensure it does not spread," says July Moyo, Zimbabwe's Labour and Social Minister. Mozambique subsequently followed suit and allowed shipments of GM grain into the country under similar conditions.

Zambia is now the only affected country in the "starvation belt" that continues to hold out. "We have rejected GM food," declared President Levy Mwanawasa. "There is no conclusive evidence that it is safe. We do not wish to use our people as guinea pigs in this experiment. Our decision is final."

The Zambian leader says his country has sufficient food to take it into December by which time donations of non-GM food would be made.

The simple choice facing Africa's leaders is whether to feed their people genetically modified food or leave millions of them to die. President Mwanawasa has already opted for the latter. "It is necessary to examine the maize before we can give it to our people, and I'm certain that if it is found to be safe then we will give it." he maintains. "But if it is not, then we would rather starve than get something toxic."

Aggravating the situation is the fact that Zambia does not have the scientific means or skills to carry out such tests conclusively. To overcome the problem, the United States has offered to urgently build, train scientists and technologically equip a laboratory in Zambia to study the effects of biotech grains. …

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