TCS Daily

North vs. South

By Roger Bate - February 24, 2003 12:00 AM

While continued European political opposition to genetically modified food may soon cause a trade war with the United States, European policy is already contributing to starvation in Africa. Rejection of American GM food aid is exacerbating the current food crisis in Southern Africa, where over 14 million people are still at risk of starvation.

But the impending starvation is far more than just a battle over GM food; it's a catalogue of African mismanagement. It is worth comparing today's situation with the terrible drought and famine that occurred in Southern Africa in 1991-1992. Although today's drought is not as bad the problems that remain are political and unlikely to be resolved quickly.

In 1991-1992 18 million people were at risk. According to African agricultural specialist, Robert Paarlberg, Professor of Political Science, Wellesley College, from central Zambia through Malawi and Mozambique southward, there were seasonal rainfall deficits as high as 80 per cent, with cereal production in the region down by 54%, and in some Southern African countries production fell by nearly 70%.

The current drought is far less severe, with yields dropping on average only 7%. Furthermore, the UN World Food Programme started feeding 2.6 million people by February 2002, after drought warnings as early as December 2001. So compared with 1991-1992 the situation is far better; there is far less severe crop damage, improved famine early warning that led to food aid, more peace in the region, and the drought area is far smaller and hence fewer people are at risk.

However, the news is far from good. Although the drought has reduced yields by only 7% on average, in key countries it has dropped far further. Zambia's yield is down by 35% and Zimbabwe's 71%. Furthermore, per capita yields are lower as population has increased by 15% over the past decade (even with AIDS and malaria a significant problem) in these countries. Donor response has been slower and less generous than in the previous drought, partly because of historic mismanagement in the aid distribution. But donors have been even more concerned by corruption and overtly harmful domestic policies.


In 2001 Malawi had a Government surplus of nearly 200,000 tons of grain. A European Commission study concluded that a 60,000-ton reserve would be a sufficient buffer against drought. The EC and the IMF advised Malawi to sell some of its reserves to help offset the budget deficit. However, the Malawi National Food Reserve Agency 'sold off all but 4,000 tons of its reserves to private grain traders' says Paarlberg. Much of the local media, many of whom are hostile to business and markets, claimed that the traders hoarded the grain and tried to ramp up prices.

But the notion that the grain had stayed in Malawi and was being kept from locals by corrupt traders is mistaken. When the Malawi Government subsequently asked for help, donors refused on the grounds that the money raised from the sale of nearly 200,000 tons of grain could not be found, and the food had left the country for uncertain destinations. Eventually the Government had to take out a $35m loan to import 135,000 tons of maize, which took several months to arrive. Save the Children UK and other NGOs complained that the urban elite in Malawi ignored the rural poor: 'Every day that passes without a response to this crisis is a death sentence to hundreds', they said in an open letter to the Malawi Government.


In August 2002, Zambia decided to ban the import and distribution of all genetically modified food, including the corn being offered as aid from the United States. It had accepted GM food aid for the previous 6 years, however environmentalists from Europe had finally managed to influence local scientific opinion. In an assessment provided by Dr Mwananyanda Mbikusita-Lewanika, a biochemist from the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research, he claimed that not enough was known about GM food safety. As a result he invoked the precautionary principle and said Zambians should not consume GM products until he was sure they were safe. Furthermore, it became a common belief that if local farmers planted GM corn it could present a threat to the environment, damaging local varieties of maize, millet or sorghum. Zambia's Organic Farming Association also pressured the government not to allow GM food aid because it did not want the country to become known in Europe as one in which GM crops might be grown.

But facing famine it appeared that Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa would lift the ban in late October. According to insiders he had hoped that the report he was due to receive from Zambian scientists touring GM experimental sites in Europe and America would give him the go ahead. But since Lewanika was head of this scientific team, and he was taking advice from Friends of the Earth Netherlands and British Action AID (groups opposed to biotechnology) he maintained his anti-GM stance in the report. Mwanawasa's ability to overturn his own scientists report was made impossible when the opposition Patriotic Front leader Michael Sata came out in favour of GM food aid. Any politician who follows Sata's lead, and claims GM food must be allowed in because people are starving, is now threatened with arrest.


Zimbabwe provides the worst examples of mismanagement in Africa. In addition to President Mugabe's generally despotic rule, the Agriculture Minister denied that there was any food crisis until after the elections were completed in March 2002. And the Mugabe Government has intimidated anyone who has tried to get food aid to locations, which are opposition politician strongholds. Even the UN World Food Programme has had its officers harassed, and the grain it was trying to distribute was seized in October 2002.

No new food will be harvested in Southern Africa until mid-March, by which time hundreds of thousands could have died from famine. It is a famine that could have been averted had the African leaders accepted GM food aid. But invoking the precautionary principle, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and all manner of EU driven regulation against GM food is killing Africans in droves. While African leaders deserve the most blame for a catalogue of errors, the EU cannot escape its share for its unscientific opposition to GM food.

Dr Roger Bate is a fellow at the International Policy Network in London and a TCS columnist.

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