Southern Africa

Africa Bites the Bullet on Genetically Modified Food Aid

Genetically modified food aid Zambia
A Swazi child walks home with food aid, Aug. 9, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

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 European market.

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 seeds.

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 dangerous food.”

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?”