TCS Daily

Food Fight

By Roger Bate - September 3, 2002 12:00 AM

JOHANNESBURG -Up to14 million people are at risk from starvation in Southern Africa, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation. Food aid has flooded in from Europe and America and for some the risk is diminishing, but for the majority the danger is acute. For 300,000 Zambians it's especially worrying since they are not able to eat the food aid because it's alleged to be contaminated. But it's not spoiled or poisoned - just genetically modified. At the WSSD there is widespread consternation that food aid from America contains genetically-modified seed, when there is no agreement that this is an appropriate technology for Africa.

The mainstream argument proffered by the UN and most NGOs is that a bad drought in Southern Africa (they claim it is enhanced by climate change), as well as a lack of systematic aid, is the main cause of famine. Skeptics, such as Free Africa Foundation's George Ayittey are less convinced and think it's more likely due to political corruption and inept state management. As Eustace Davie of the Johannesburg Free Market Foundation dryly remarks 'the worst droughts always occur in socialist countries'.

But others, such as Lavshankar Upadhyay, the President of the farmers union in Baruch in Gujarat, think that it's the lack of technological diversity that is part of the problem in Africa. 'Without new technologies, such as GM seeds (which are more drought resistant) and agro-chemicals it's harder to vary growing seasons and maintain crop diversity, which protects against extreme weather events' he said. Mr Upadhayay is obviously firmly in favor of GM food, but is in a minority inside the conference center. Most are concerned that GM technology encourages corporatisation of agriculture by tying farmers to seeds from multinationals. Other arguments frequently made are that GM remains untested and could have irreversible health and environmental effects, such as superweeds and possible horizontal gene transfer to unrelated crops, with unknown consequences.

The Eco Equity green coalition is concerned that America is promoting GM food aid on impoverished nations since this action may increase acceptability of the technology in Africa. This argument has validity since the aid has been accepted by Malawi and Zimbabwe and others are considering it too. As green icon Vandana Shiva, decries, 'there is plenty of normal maize in the world available for this emergency, and any government that claims only GM corn is available is lying'. And it's true that if America only wanted to help there is little doubt that it could buy non-GM grain from Europe, but since it wants to promote its farmers and technologies it is not about to buy from its trade enemy across the pond.

Whether intended or not, America's GM food aid has stirred up an increasingly vitriolic debate amongst the NGOs. The Indian Farmers who marched earlier in the week in favor of new technologies and open access to western food markets have, under the leadership of Barun Mitra of the Liberty Institute, claim that Dr Shiva and her allies will perpetuate poverty if they succeed in denying GM seeds to Indian farmers. Their argument is that India recently had as bad a drought as Southern Africa is now experiencing, but because of different technologies, including GM seeds, their buffer stocks led to a loss of production of only 2%, and virtually no increase in the price of grain. And as many scholars of this issue believe, it's often the increase in price of food that causes the famine, since it encourages hoarding.

A green NGO delegate who was monitoring Wednesday's march told me that most Indian farmers oppose GM seed and the Indian farmers here are probably sponsored by Monsanto. Mr Upadhyay denies this charge, but undeniably Monsanto's gene-splicing biotechnology is furthered by the arguments he and his colleagues are making.

Many of the African farmers, such as TJ Buthelezi, the leader of the South African Ubongwa Farmers Union, are aligned with the pro-GM Indian farmers. 'Its imperative we have all available technologies to address drought in Africa' claimed Buthelezi. But these farmers are rightly more concerned that the really important issue of removal of agricultural protection in the Northern countries is not forthcoming from this conference. Without action on this point foreign direct investment in crop development into Africa will remain at a paltry level since exports to the North will remain small. However, as Mr Upadhyay concluded, protection is set to continue and the developing world must become more self-reliant, which means using the latest technologies.

Roger Bate is Director of the International Policy Network.

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