Hungry Africans must not be guinea pigs

Vast swathes of the region do not enjoy the most regular of rains or the best cropping climates in the world. So even if a country grows enough in other areas to allow exports, there will be people in that country who need help. Sometimes a country can manage this itself; at other times, because of the fragile budgets of most developing countries, foreign assistance will also be required.

Almost every decade there are some very bad years, when the region as a whole needs to import food.

Even when the region is self-sufficient, some donors prefer to help their own farmers as well as the poor in the Third World whose crops have failed. So instead of buying, say, surplus Zambian grain to give to Mozambicans, they ship in European or American grain. This might make it easier to get the votes for aid in the American mid-West or in France, but it can play havoc with farmers in Southern Africa who have no local markets for their own hard work.

So SADC needs a policy on how food aid can be administered and co-ordinated and just what sort of food can be brought into the region. This is why stakeholders are meeting soon in Harare to debate the issue and recommend guidelines for food aid.

We believe that there are several starting points that can be accepted. As far as possible food aid should be linked to public works projects, so that a dependency syndrome does not develop. Donors should seek surpluses within the region before bringing in their own food, thus boosting regional agricultural development as well as relieving hunger. Aid should help, not hinder, the ability of the region to boost production.

One critical issue, which is more subject to emotion than logic, is that of genetically modified organisms. It is easy to work out a simple and straight-forward policy for such crops.

We need to remember that almost all the crops we grow, and have been growing for centuries, are genetically modified, albeit through natural mutation and selective breeding. The original maize ancestor had tiny little cobs; wheat is a notorious genetic monstrosity that arose from the natural combination of the chromosomes of three wild grasses.

What is now happening is that plant breeders are introducing desirable genetic material from one species into another. This is not necessarily evil. For example, if some SADC scientist came up with a variety of maize that had the ability of legumes to fix nitrogen from the air, and yet was safe, many in Southern Africa would be tempted to grow such a variety.

So far as food aid is concerned, the safety factor can be most easily met by simply demanding that any GMO grain shipped in must be of varieties that are eaten in the country donating the grain. In other words if the US sends GMO grain, then that variety must be on sale in the US and must have passed the US standards. Hungry Africans cannot be used as guinea-pigs but there is nothing unethical about giving the food your own people eat to others.

We use the US example because much grain grown in the US is genetically modified. In fact it is very difficult to even find out if US grain is or is not genetically modified because that country, once it has approved a variety, does not bother to keep stocks separate. Farmers just deliver their grain to silos and it is all mixed together.

But there is another problem with GMO food given as aid, and that involves trade. Some countries, such as most of Europe, are huge markets for grain that is not genetically modified and for meat that comes from animals that have never been fed genetically modified organisms. But if food aid consisting of GMO grain is fed to such animals, or if people receiving food aid plant such grain, those markets could well be closed.

That is a serious worry.

Zimbabwe got around much of this problem a couple of years ago by insisting that all grain that was genetically modified, or which could have been modified, had to be ground first. This was after insisting that it met the donor-country’s safety standards and that it was already approved. This pre-milling did ensure that no one would plant the seed.

This solves part of the problem, and could well be a starting point for a new policy, but there is still the need to stop milled GMO grain being fed to animals destined for certain markets. Here it might be necessary to rely on the good sense of livestock farmers.

They would have to be taught that cattle destined for certain markets had to be raised in a particular way if they wanted the premium prices such markets delivered.

The crucial point is that the decisions about GMO foods and the like must be made by Southern Africans, in light of Southern African needs. What cannot be tolerated is such decisions being made in rich countries delivering aid.

If SADC decides some GMOs are acceptable, for certain reasons and under stated conditions, that is our decision. It is not imposed, and must not be imposed.

July 2006
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