Meron Tesfa Michael
World Press Review
Sept. 26, 2002
Millions of people in the world eat genetically modified (GM) foods every
day. But recently, seized by fears over possible economic repercussions and
potential health risks, famine-ridden nations in southern Africa have chosen
to reject offers of GM food aid from the United States.
For about the past six months, southern Africa has been in the grip of a
devastating famine. A recent report from the World Health Organization (WHO)
estimates that nearly 14 million people, including 2.3 million children
under the age of 5, are at risk of starvation. Without effective action the
WHO says at least 300,000 could die from hunger and disease in the next six
months. Aid agencies estimate that the region needs roughly 1.1 million tons
of grain to address the crisis. Yet when the U.S. offered 540,000 tons of
genetically modified grain to countries in the region, many countries
rejected the offer.
Responses differed across the region. Swazi officials said that they didn't
have an objection to GM food, but Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe
all asked that GM seeds be milled before distribution to prevent their
cross-breeding with local flora. Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa initially
blocked GM food aid for the 2.5 million Zambians facing starvation, calling
it "poison," but following popular outcry, sent a team of scientists to
visit Oslo, Brussels, New York, Washington, and South Africa to study the
safety of the GM foods before reaching a final decision.
Southern African leaders have concerns beyond the safety of GM foods.
Roughly half the region's agricultural exports are sold to the European
Union, where there is loud opposition to GM foods, and where they must be
labelled as such. African farmers fear that if they are no longer able to
certify that their foods are GM-free, they will lose their share in the
These European markets are an important source of income for southern
Africa's cash-starved economies. From 1999 through 2000, for example, Zambia
exported more than 8,400 tons of produce to Europe for US$62.6 million.
Between 1993 and 1997, Zimbabwe's export of peas to the EU grew by 53
percent, so that Zimbabwean imports account for 12 percent of peas and beans
consumed on European tables.
"Our decision to reject some of these foods is out of fear.... We have been
told that we will lose our European market if we start growing GM foods,"
Zambian Vice President Enoch Kavindele explained to U.N. aid workers.
"Hungry we may be, but GM foods pose a serious threat to our agriculture
sector... and [could] grind it to a halt."
African agricultural experts also fear that, in order to protect their
markets, biotech companies could introduce a "terminator" gene in their
seeds, which would prevent small farmers from replanting them after harvest.
This would make farmers dependent on big companies that control the price of
In Mozambique, where officials eventually accepted GM food aid, Prime
Minister Pascoal Mocumbi told donors that the aid was only acceptable in
milled form so that farmers do not mistakenly use GM maize for seeds. "We
don't want to create a habit of using genetically modified maize that the
country cannot maintain," he told reporters.
Zimbabwe, the nation worst hit by the famine, decided in early September
that it would accept GM maize from the United States, but that it would
quarantine the maize and closely monitor its transport, milling, and
distribution. This "will certainly go a long way in protecting the country's
agricultural industry from contamination," read a Sept. 7 editorial in
Harare's government-owned Herald, which went on to warn that "without any
conclusive evidence on the effects of genetically modified organisms on
human beings, the responsibility of eating this food now lies with the
individual consumer and aid beneficiary."
For countries like Zimbabwe, accepting the U.S. food aid means breaking a
four year-long, almost continent-wide ban on GM foods and crops. Back in
1998, at a meeting of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations, all African nations except South Africa rejected GM crop offers by
U.S. biotech corporations like Monsanto, saying "We strongly object that the
image of the poor and hungry from our countries is being used by giant
multinational corporations to push a technology that is neither safe,
environmentally friendly, nor economically beneficial to us."
Writing in the Aug. 8 edition of Johannesburg's liberal Mail & Guardian,
Salim Fakir opined that Africa was merely "a pawn in a global chess game
[over GM foods].... The United States is taking advantage of [the famine],
and is forcing governments in the region to make a drastic policy decision:
mass starvation versus breaking their policy on genetically modified
food.... There is a larger strategy behind this. It has to do with the
United States' attempt to break the European Union's position on GM
foods.... Biotechnology is regarded as the United States' strategic industry
for the 21st century. The United States is interested in the EU market
because this is where money is to be made, not in Africa."
In a Sept. 18 article for Nairobi's independent Nation newspaper, Anthony J.
Covington took the contrary position. Covington wrote that "GM crops are
potentially wonderful" and accused anti-GM activists for "dazzling the
ignorant with pseudoscience and false fears." He went on: "Africa needs all
the food advances it can get-and fast. Not so for a loose association of
anti-GM activists from Europe.... There are those who feel ill, but not at
the idea of a GM meal. It is rather the sight of overfed white people
lecturing starving black peasants about the need for 'proper' farming."
In July 31 opinion piece for The Post, an independent Lusaka newspaper, Dr.
Luke Mumba said that Africans cannot think like Europeans, because "Unlike
Europe, Africa cannot afford the luxury of engaging into debate and delay.
Europeans see no need to increase their food output, whereas Africans can
see every reason to do so. In the light of the need for increased farming
productivity, Africa must make up its own mind and speak for itself."
Zambia's Mwanawasa was hard pressed to explain his initial rejection of the
food aid. "The rejection is not intended to demean those who had donated it,
rather it was done to protect the long-term interest of the Zambian people
and the environment," he told delegates at the Earth Summit 2002, held from
Aug. 26 to Sept. 4 in Johannesburg, South Africa. "Just because people are
hungry in Zambia, it does not mean we have to feed them with potentially
He found some support. The Aug. 21 Post contained an article by Charles
Chabala applauding his country's government for making a safe decision by
rejecting GM foods. "It must be re-emphasized that any artificial food, or
food that is altered from its natural origin has an effect on the human
body.... Europe and America know this, that is why they are willing to pay
twice or more to buy organically... produced fruits and vegetables."
But since nearly 2.5 million of its people are reported to be facing food
shortages, some argue that Zambia's fear of the unknown is not a strong
enough reason for the country's government to decline GM food aid.
Biotechnology advocates, who claim that GM foods might avert further famine
while also protecting the environment by reducing the need for pesticides
and herbicides, have been particularly vociferous. They dismiss fears of
unanticipated allergic reactions.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reproached African nations for not
accepting GM food aid, and weighing in at the Johannesburg summit, reminded
African leades that GM foods were good enough for Americans, who have more
food than can be eaten.
Austine Mobozi, writing in the Sept. 16 Post, took umbrage with Powell's
remarks: "Whether Americans eat GM food or not is not our issue. Our issue
is that we do not know how safe it is, just like Americans also do not know
how safe it is. Can Powell agree to eat kanunka, chikaanda, Mbeba, or Hopani
foods just because the Tonga, Bemba, Ngoni, or Lozi peoples respectively
have been eating them? No. Then why should we eat GM [foods] just because
Americans (if any) have been eating them?"
Jason Lott, in an Aug. 8 article for the Daily Mail and Guardian, expressed
little patience with the bickering over GM foods while so many are starving.
Lott argued that the growing fear of GM food is resulting in needless deaths
of "Africans who simply wish to eat, not to debate the morality of altering
the plant genome."
Critics of GM food may be able to debate the issue over dinner, Lott wrote,
"but now these same critics must confront the monster they've created, a
swarm of southern African despots ready to sacrifice the innocent in the
name of the 'safe'-'safe' seeds, 'safe' crops, and a 'safe' environment."
Whereas Lott saw Africa's enemies as the "monstruous African despots," The
Post's Owen Sichoneb saw U.S. biotech companies. "GM foods are not peasant
crops, they are designed to make the companies that own the patents for
particular genes super-rich," he wrote. "They will not solve the hunger
problem, which has always been about access, and not availability."
"Nobody knows how the grandchildren of the people who eat GM soya or GM
maize will be affected," Sichoneb continued. "Nobody knows how the genes
will be carried with the pollen in the wind and affect other varieties. Why
take the risk?"
World Press Review is a program of the Stanley Foundation.