Eat this or die

The poison politics of food aid

Feature story - September 30, 2002
Zambian president Levy Mwananwasa's rejection this month of US food aid shocked the world. With child malnutrition soaring to 59 percent in his drought-stricken country, how dare he turn down this generous gift of maize?

Genetically engineered maize.

Perhaps because the US donation was an ultimatum: "eat our unwanted genetically engineered food or die." Perhaps because Mwananwasa knows that the future of his country's agricultural production is at stake.

Where does Greenpeace stand on this? According to the Bush administration and industry propagandists, it is the environmentalists who are holding a gun to the heads of the starving. Not so. We say that as long as supplies of non-genetically engineered grain exist, nobody should be forced to eat genetically engineered (GE) grain against their will. If the choice really was between GE grain and starvation then clearly any food is the preferable option -- but that's a false and cynical picture of the choice in this situation.

The Bush administration has joined up with industry to paint a picture of ghoulish green devils whose environmental principles are insensitive to the needs of humanity. But is the US government acting out of concern for the starving of Africa, or acting on behalf of a multinational industry with a sales and image problem? Genetically engineered organisms are not being forced upon Africa because there is no choice. They're being forced on Africa because the US can't sell them abroad, has an economic interest in reducing its grain surplus, chooses to deny the existence of non-GE grain supplies, and is developing a deep imperial disdain for the opinions and laws of other countries which contradict their own interests.

Exploiting the hungry

The worldwide rejection of American GE crops has saddled the US government with increasing surpluses of corn and soy. Since 1996, the US has been subsidising exports by dumping these genetically engineered surpluses into the UN World Food Programme (WFP).

WFP policy helps smooth the way for the US because, astonishingly, it isn't currently obligated to tell its 83 recipient nations whether their food aid contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs) or ingredients derived from them. Yet many poor nations have GMO bans, and they have clearly demanded advance warning about genetically engineered imports.

Disgracefully, hunger and desperation have become the Genetic Engineering industry's best tools to penetrate the developing world's food supply. They bet that starvation will overcome many "developing" countries' resistance to genetically engineered food. And not only will these people eat genetically engineered grain, they will inevitably plant them, even if it violates their country's regulations.

While the potential impacts of these artificial organisms on human health cannot be dismissed, an even greater danger lies is the contamination of natural species and the high likelihood of unforeseen and potentially disastrous consequences on food supply. "Safe zones" which remain GMO-free are prudent and profitable now. They may someday be the only way back from a disastrous, uncontrolled experiment gone wrong.

What's at stake for Zambia

Zambia made a brave choice to preserve their agricultural heritage and its future. But their resistance to GMOs will prove futile if the country and its neighbours find their conventional crops polluted by genetically engineered organisms.

The government of Mexico learned this lesson the hard way. They too took a cautious approach and forbid the planting of genetically engineered maize. But they did import such maize from the US for food, and some of the grain distributed as food aid was illegally planted by campesinos in need of seed. Researchers later discovered that genes from the genetically engineered maize had crossed over to conventional plants, contaminating Mexico's globally important centre of diversity for maize. Centres of origin and centres of diversity such as this are the genetic wells from which breeders draw on old varieties to create new ones. They are places where the natural genetic future of a crop is still unfolding - places where we should not be writing experimental lines into unique copies of the source code.

Africans fear genetic contamination because they can trade on the GE-free value of their grain and organically-raised livestock. Profitable EU markets could evaporate if the slightest GE contamination rears its head.

While starvation may be Southern Africa's greatest immediate threat, GE foods are still an unknown quantity when it comes to health safety. American consumers have served as unwitting guinea pigs for years, but scientists are still debating how to adequately test GE foods for safe human consumption or monitor for effects. No long-term studies exist, and particularly none that consider the weakened state of a malnourished population.

The research picture is even murkier when it comes to understanding the effects of genetically engineered organisms on animals and the environment. Already we have seen major ecological threats from GE crops, with few if any studies appropriate to Southern Africa's subtropical ecosystems.

Yet over the next six months, GMO-laced US supplies will make up at least half of World Food Programme food aid to thirteen million Southern Africans facing severe food crisis. In addition to hunger and AIDS epidemics, these stricken populations may someday add environmental costs of genetic pollution and financial loss of exports to their list of woes.

The solutions

Starving people still deserve the dignity of choice. The US should follow in the European Union's footsteps (see table) and allow aid recipients to choose their food aid, buying it locally if they wish. This practise can stimulate developing economies and creates more robust food security. Ample non-GE maize is now available and the Zambian government should be permitted to use aid dollars to buy it. Imported food aid should be only the last resort.

If Africans truly have no other alternative, the controversial GE maize should be milled so it can't be planted. It was this condition that allowed Zambia's neighbours Zimbabwe and Malawi to accept it.

In the current storm of controversy, one wouldn't guess that clear rules for moving GMOs around the planet already exist -rules violated by the current traffic in GE food aid. Food aid organisations must wake up to the Biosafety Protocol, the UN treaty that obligates signing nations to assess the impact of these crops before they import them. On top of that, the parties to the London Convention on Food Aid have consistently noted that it is preferable to provide monetary resources, rather than aid-in-kind, to support regional buying of appropriate foodstuffs. These are options that must be provided to the southern African governments in this time of crisis.

Ever since Zambia's president had the audacity to suggest that he wasn't going to trade away his country's agricultural integrity to the GE industry unnecessarily, pro-GMO interests have launched a vigorous propaganda war. Their target is anyone who suggests that genetically engineered organisms have no place in food aid. Their accusation? That the fears of environmental campaigners about genetic engineering are resulting in starving people in Africa going hungry.

It's a lie and part of a consistent strategy to convince the world that genetic engineering is the answer to the world's hunger problems. It's not. World Hunger is simply being used as the answer to the Genetic Engineering industry's image and marketing problems. Real solutions to hunger are being developed and practiced sustainably by small farmers all over the world as Greenpeace and Oxfam's Farming Solutions website shows. The real victims of the GE industry's PR strategy are the very people whose interests they pretend to have at heart - the worlds most vulnerable people who are being abused to market an unwanted and dangerous technology.