The dumping-ground: Africa and GM food aid

About the author
Patrick Mulvany is senior policy adviser to the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG), focusing especially on the governance of agricultural biodiversity for food and livelihood security and related genetic engineering issues. He is chair of the UK Food Group and an active participant in the civil society lobbies at the Food & Agriculture Organisation of the UN, and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Two decades after the “biblical” Ethiopian famine of 1984 darkened the plains outside Korem, the scourge of hunger is still rising in Africa, accelerated by climate change, conflict and disease. Today, in a world of plenty and despite repeated commitments to provide food for all (codified at the World Food Summit and in the first Millennium Development Goal), more than 40 million people in the continent are threatened. Across the world, a child dies of hunger every five seconds. “Hunger is neither inevitable nor acceptable. It is a daily massacre and a shame on humanity,” Jean Ziegler, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, reported to the Human Rights Commission in March 2004.

Don’t miss the stirring exchange in openDemocracy between Gordon Conway, president of the Rockefeller Foundation (“Biotechnology and hunger”) and the researcher Liz Orton (“Ending African hunger: GM or agro-ecology?”)

This shame on humanity should be a spur to implement a long-term “Marshall Plan” to secure local food supplies that would ensure hunger is eradicated across the continent. This has not happened. Indeed, support for local sustainable agriculture and emergency grain stockpiles has fallen under global trade rules.

Those with power, particularly the United States, have used hunger as justification for trade supremacy and the promotion of proprietary genetically-modified (GM) crops owned by northern multinational corporations – much to the delight of pro-GM advocates. Countries and their peoples who legitimately resist the consumption of GM grain and seed are under intense diplomatic threat of denial of food aid in times of crisis. United Nations agencies and US private voluntary organisations are complicit in this process, as is attested in these minutes of a May 2002 meeting between US Private Voluntary Organisations and the US Department of Agriculture).

Many African governments, including Angola, Malawi, Mozambique, Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe, once they found out that their supplies had been contaminated, made clear their objection to GM food aid. Globally, Latin American countries and India have also announced that they reject GM food aid.

Angola is the latest country to have declared, in March 2004, that it will not import GM grains and seeds until Biosafety is proven. According to Elizabeth Matos, chairperson of the National Plant Genetic Resources centre in Luanda, the ban has also been implemented to protect Angola’s great diversity of plant life. “We (hold) in our gene bank almost 800 different types of maize and local ecotypes that we have picked up from all over the country and we don’t want this material crossed with GM,” she said. Despite huge diplomatic pressures Angola, has continued to resist GM food aid imports and it will now mill much-needed food aid before use or import it from non-GM sources. The 120,000-ton grain surplus produced by Zambia in 2003 could have provided GM-free food aid to Angola, and indeed its government is currently in discussion with the World Food Programme about providing food aid to Angolans, some of whom are refugees in Zambia.

In Sudan, whose western Darfur region is engulfed in a terrible conflict, more than one million displaced people need food aid. The government declared in May 2003 that it did not want to import GM grains but, under pressure, it granted a waiver until January 2004. That date arrived, no alternative food aid strategy had been developed and it has been further pressured, through a ‘demarche’ or ‘diplomatic protest’ by the US government, to accept GM food aid or nothing – so the waiver has been extended first to July 2004 and now to January 2005, in order to allow continued imports of GM food aid. The irony of this situation is that Sudan has enjoyed one of its best harvests in recent years 6.3 million tonnes, of which 82% is comprised of sorghum and this GM-free grain could be made available if purchased and transported West.

In 2002-03 Zambia was put under intolerable pressure to accept GM food aid but it resisted. The famine predicted by the pro-GM advocates did not ensue, as alternative food supplies were found. In December 2002, Zambia had 300,000 tons of surplus GM-free cassava in the north of the country. There was also sufficient GM-free food available in sub-Saharan Africa. 1.8 million tons of cereals were available for export for an assessed requirement for additional food aid in the region of 1.47 million tons. In India, 60 million tons of GM-free food were available, with a million tons already pledged as food aid to Afghanistan.

The contamination of food aid

Most of the food grains globally available for export are GM-free. Only about 5% of the world’s 1.5 billion hectares of farmland is sown to GM crops (much of it cotton): only the food aid sourced from US farms is contaminated with varieties of GM crops, developed mainly for livestock feed, with inbuilt insecticidal properties and able to tolerate increased applications of herbicide.

This contamination of food aid has arisen because the US government has failed to ensure identification, labelling and segregation of GM varieties. Since the release of commercial GM seed varieties in 1995-96, plantings of GM corn and GM soya have risen to 40% and 80% respectively of the total US crop in 2003. As these grains and their derived oil are principal ingredients in US food aid shipments, the food aid pipeline from US farms to Africa has become increasingly contaminated.

The food aid is managed by the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP). The US provides half the food aid delivered by the WFP to Africa, paying part of its contribution in cash but making most available only via grain (wheat, corn/maize and soya) from US farms. This export pipeline has provided a guaranteed market for American farmers, courtesy of their generous government. In 2000, the US shipped around five million tons of food grains which (with other cash contributions) amounted to about $800 million.

“The problems of food shortage in developing countries are mulitfaceted and the absence of high yielding varieties is rarely a cause. The real reasons are economic and political. The ability to store fore in good years of harvest to use in bad years is very low. There often is not enough money or infrastructure to buy, store, transport and distribute to those whose harvest has failed. Even when distribution is possible, the hungry are too poor to buy it. This complex situation cannot be solved through biotechnology, as everyone knows, a single technology does not constitute development. To cap it all, there is no evidence that GM varieties produce better or more than their non-GM counterparts. They only bring in new vulnerabilities.”

Tewolde Egziabher, chief African negotiator on Biosafety

In September 2002, the WFP admitted that it had been secretly delivering contaminated food aid for seven years. This unleashed a wave of protest from governments who felt they had been abused in times of need and at a time when they were declaring in UN negotiations on Biosafety that they wanted protection from GM food imports.

The response was mounting pressure from the US and the WFP to force acceptance of GM food aid and “biotechnology” – a generic term including GM crops. This offensive started in the approach to the 2002 World Food Summit, and continued in South Africa at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2003. The US, and especially the US agriculture secretary (and ex-board member of Calgene, later to be taken over by Monsanto) Ann Veneman had a single-minded purpose at these events: to gain acceptance of biotechnology and GM food as a solution to hunger (see here and here).

The US pressure continued through 2003 with the openly pro-biotech science and technology ministerial meeting in Sacramento – timed to influence outcomes at the World Trade Organisation summit at Cancún, and the passing of the HIV/Aids act by Congress that linked health assistance to acceptance of (GM) food aid.

The US uses diplomatic missions round the world to press its case. For example the press officer of the US’s London embassy – who notoriously had to withdraw the claim that “exactly 0%…of the maize food aid offered by the US and refused by several African governments [in 2002] actually came from the US” – now says that there “is no, absolutely no, conditionality in the legislation” linking GM food aid to US help for HIV/Aids victims in Africa (even though the legislation includes a ‘Sense of Congress’ statement that “US food assistance should be accepted by countries with large populations of individuals infected or living with HIV/Aids, particularly African countries, to help feed such individuals.”

Even if “technically non-binding”, such Congressional statements are being used by US officials to promote acceptance by otherwise reluctant governments. And if the only US food aid available is GM, then that is what they will have to import.

Trade versus Humanitarian Aid

But the uncomfortable reality is that the plight of the hungry is used by the powerful to justify trade domination; poor countries and their peoples are pawns in an unequal global power game.

In June 2003, President Bush said in an acclaimed speech to the US biotech industry: “For the sake of a continent threatened by famine I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology … many African nations avoid investing in biotechnology, worried that their products will be shut out of important European markets.”

More in openDemocracy about GM, Africa, and biotechnology – see the articles by Walter Alhassan, Lawrence Tsimese, and John Elkington in our “food without frontiers” debate. Please add your views in our forums!

The lead African negotiator on these issues, Tewolde Egziabher, countered: “This premise is untrue … a form of colonialism. Africa will lose its right to decide its own future and will become dependent on the US for patented seeds. GM will not feed the world, and this is why Africa led negotiations on the Biosafety Protocol.”

Since 11 September 2003, the Biosafety Protocol has been legally-binding and at the first meeting of its governing body in Kuala Lumpur in February 2004, African countries strengthened the protocol by securing agreement to require compliance, acceptance of liability and effective labelling of GM exports. This is a step in the right direction, Tewolde Egziabher said. These measures are “badly needed … for the caution that we will force on those who export.”

In Kuala Lumpur there was a sense of victory that the majority world was asserting itself, standing up to potential bullying and achieving an agreement on regulating GM trade and food aid. The challenge now is to translate this ruling into actions that will protect vulnerable countries and peoples from dumped GM food aid. African civil society organisations are calling for such measures to be implemented without delay.

Their appeal should also persuade the UN to decontaminate the food aid pipeline, reform trade rules, implement agreed programmes to eradicate hunger and – as Jean Ziegler reported to the UN Human Rights Commission in April 2004 – help countries and communities attain food sovereignty.