GM Food Aid Row Continues

GM Food Aid Row Continues

By Lim Li Ching, Third World Network and Institute of
Science in Society, UK

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), the most contentious
issue that was not on the official agenda, but which reverberated through
the corridors, was on genetically modified (GM) food aid, and with it,
questions of national sovereignty and the role of the UN.

So much so that it became part of the Summit speech of US Secretary of State
Colin Powell. He chastised governments in Southern Africa that have raised
concerns about GM food aid, saying, “In the face of famine, several
governments in Southern Africa have prevented critical U.S. food assistance
from being distributed to the hungry by rejecting biotech corn, which has
been eaten safely around the world since 1995”. Powell was heckled and
booed during his speech.

Zambia rejects GM food aid

Receiving less attention but more importantly, was a press conference the
day before by Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa at the WSSD, explaining his
country’s position on the issue. Zambia has been at the centre of the GM
food aid storm, standing firm in its refusal to accept GM food aid. Its
rejection is based on concerns over the health effects of consuming GM
maize, and the fear of contamination of local varieties, with the ensuing
environmental and socio-economic impacts, including the loss of export
markets in Europe where safety concerns have led to consumer rejection of GM
crops and seeds. Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique have also expressed varying
degrees of reservation over the past few months.

President Mwanawasa explained that a national consultative meeting held in
Lusaka on 12 August 2002, in which a cross-section of Zambian society had
participated, including NGOs, farmers, women’s groups, church leaders,
traditional leaders, members of Parliament, opposition politicians and
government. The meeting had strongly recommended that Zambia should not
accept GM food aid. Zambian media has been active in facilitating public
discussion and debate.

Commenting on a UN statement issued on 27 August which obliquely urged
Southern African countries to accept GM food aid, he expressed concern that
the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture
Organisation (FAO) admitted that they have not carried out formal safety
assessments on GMOs. He pointed to the apparent contradiction with their
statement that donors are certifying these foods as safe for human
consumption. (Many critics of GMOs, including scientists, have pointed to
the lack of comprehensive biosafety regulations and risk assessment systems
in the US, where commercialisation of GMOs has been most widespread. Within
the US, consumer groups, organic farmers, independent scientists and even
some regulators in the government have raised concerns over the lack of food
safety assessment in particular.)

The Zambian President said that the FAO, WHO and World Food Programme (WFP)
advice was at best speculative, with terms like “not likely to present human
health risks”, “these foods may be eaten” and “the organisations confirm
that to date they are not aware of scientifically documented cases in which
the consumption of these foods has had negative human health effects”.

He said, “We may be poor and experiencing food shortages, but are not ready
to expose people to ill-defined risks”. He pleaded that Zambians not be
used as guinea pigs in the debate.

A statement of support from African civil society groups similarly
reiterated that Africans should not be used as the dumping ground for GM
food. This arose from a seminar organised by Third World Network during the
WSSD. More than 200 people, including many African NGOs and government
officials, were present to listen to Zambian scientist Dr. Lewanika talk
about the actual situation. There and then, many participants from Africa
pledged their solidarity with Zambia on the issue. By early September, more
than 140 representatives and organisations from 26 countries in Africa had
signed up to the statement that will go to donor governments and the UN.
(for further information contact: Million Belay )

“We expect UN agencies and donors to respect our decision as a sovereign
nation,” President Mwanawasa said.

When the issue was put to the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan by Third World
Network, his emphatic response was that the UN would not pressure any
country and that any food aid provided would first receive the consent of
the recipient country.

Yet, Zambia has come under intense pressure to reverse its decision,
particularly from the US, and the WFP statement supported by the WHO and FAO
adds to that pressure.

No prior informed consent

NGOs at the WSSD published a strongly worded open letter to the US
government, the WFP, WHO and FAO, urging them not to pressure hungry peoples
to accept GM food aid. (for details see

The WFP came under strong criticism for failing to obtain the prior informed
consent of countries receiving food aid, as to whether they are willing to
accept GM food aid. And in the weeks that followed, revelations surfaced
that the WFP has been delivering GM food as emergency aid for the past seven
years, without telling the countries concerned [‘UN is slipping modified
food into aid’, by Fred Pearce, New Scientist, 19 Sept 2002]. Countries
getting GM food aid in the past two years – often in breach of national
regulations – include the Philippines, India, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala,
Nicaragua and Ecuador, as well as many African countries.

Earlier this year the Alliance for a Nicaragua Free of Genetically Modified
Organisms accused the WFP and the US Agency for International Development
(USAID) of using GM foods and seeds in their emergency relief programs in
Nicaragua [for details of the Alliance’s Press Release, 3 June 2002, see].

On 10 June 2002, the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development
(FOBOMADE), a citizens’ group in Bolivia, announced that a sample of USAID
food aid tested positive for the presence of StarLink maize, a GM variety
not approved for human consumption due to health concerns over possible
allergenic effects. According to the press release, other GM varieties not
approved by the E.U. were also found.

In view of the worldwide uncertainty over the health and environmental
impacts of GMOs, Zambia thus took a precautionary approach in rejecting GM
food aid. The country has yet to formulate national biosafety regulations
and lacks the capacity to conduct reliable risk assessments. Add to this the
lack of information on the identities of the GM maize in the food aid
consignments and the unknown related to the different contexts of diet,
health status and the environment in Zambia (as opposed to the US
situation), and a precautionary approach is indeed warranted.

There are alternatives

In Johannesburg, the Zambian President made a strong appeal to partners to
assist in sourcing and providing non-GM food aid. Zambia itself is prepared
to plug its food deficit with commercial imports of non-GM food. It has also
received offers of non-GM food from various countries, as well as offers of
cash to purchase non-GM food. On 7 October, a Reuters report cited the WFP
as saying that 12,000 tonnes of GM-free maize had begun arriving in Zambia
and the agency was seeking another 16,000 tonnes from within southern

In its latest report on ‘USAID and GM food aid’, Greenpeace argues that
there are numerous sources of non-GM food aid available around the world,
including the USA. It states that the latest Food Supply and Crop Prospects
Report from the Global Information and Early Warning System on food and
agriculture (GIEWS) of the FAO indicates that there is a total of 1.16
million metric tonnes of non-GM maize available in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda
and South Africa. More than double this amount is available on the world
market. Meanwhile, the WFP have used cash donations from Japan and the
Netherlands to purchase GM-free maize regionally. The EU has also announced
that it will provide southern Africa with humanitarian aid to the tune of 30
million euro (29.57 million US dollars).

For the food crisis in Southern Africa, this shows that the alternative to
rejecting GM food aid is not starvation. Non-GM food aid should be made
available by the WFP and bilateral donors.
While countries may require food assistance, this should not be a reason to
deprive them of the right to choose non-GM food.

In an article of the UK Guardian newspaper, Greenpeace and Action Aid have
accused the US of manipulating the southern African food crisis to benefit
their GM food interests and of using the UN to distribute domestic food
surpluses that could not otherwise find a market. Aid agencies, the EU and
the UK government believe that the best practice in emergency aid is to
provide cash support to the WFP, so that it can buy grain from the quickest
and most cost-effective sources.

The only organisation that thinks otherwise is USAID, with US food aid to
southern Africa tied to heavily subsidised GM food grown only in the US.

The eruption of the food aid and GM issue at the WSSD led to a hasty
invitation by USAID to the Zambian government to visit the US. Keen to have
a genuine fact-finding mission, a delegation of Zambian scientists, together with the
Economic Adviser to the President, has just completed visits to the US,
South Africa and Europe (Norway, UK, the Netherlands). They investigated the
safety of GMOs for human consumption and environmental sustainability, both
from a point of view of addressing the immediate food crisis as well as
longer-term policy considerations. The delegation is to report to the
President, and an announcement on the Zambian position on GM food aid is
expected very soon.

Meanwhile, the courageous stance of the Zambian government has not only
reaffirmed their right to choose safe food aid, but also put to the
forefront the urgency of developing countries to develop strong biosafety
laws, policies and capacities.

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