TCS Daily

'Culturally Appropriate'

By Roger Bate - July 8, 2003 12:00 AM

The priorities of famine relief would seem obvious to most of us. Yet it increasingly appears that only the naïve think that its purpose is first and foremost to avert starvation.

At the World Food Summit in Rome last year Oxfam International commented: "food aid programmes have historically been used inappropriately, with industrialised countries using them to dispose of surpluses and create food dependencies."

So there you have it, give someone food because you have more of it than you need, and that's wrong. Make it something they want more of and, of course, that's even worse.

But it gets better. The latest buzz word in food aid circles is that food must be 'culturally appropriate'. Now feeding certain foods to those who eat only kosher and halal would certainly be inappropriate, but we know this because of the tenets of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Imagine deciding, based on your own taste, but on behalf of others, what is and is not appropriate to eat? Picture two virtually identical, and equally safe, ears of corn, the staple of choice of sub-Saharan Africa. Someone decides that one is all right and may save your life, but that the other is not and you may starve instead. Shockingly, this is not an absurd fiction but a real deliberation taking place in Africa and costing lives right now.

USAID deliveries of corn in which GM and non-GM varieties are freely mixed have been feeding hungry Africans for years (almost as long as they have been feeding hungry Americans). Over the last twelve months though, they have become strangely problematic. The corn which millions in the US pay good money to consume every day and which is exported both in aid and trade around the world has become mysteriously feared as a 'poison' which may harm African health.

In 2002, six African nations expressed concern over these aid shipments. Accepting American assurances of its safety all but Zambia were finally persuaded to come to some arrangement for distribution.

Levy Mwanawasa, the Zambian president, told the United Nations last year that it was not his government's intention to "sacrifice lives of the Zambian people by accepting GMOs". When pressed, the Zambian government accepted that its citizens had been consuming such corn for years but would not change its decision. A later address by the president unraveled the mystery. "If Europe has rejected the GMOs why should we accept them just because we are poor," he stated.

Europe has a long tradition of promulgating its mores in places where they have little context but this latest example is surely among the least excusable. The EU's anti-GMO stance is holding up, but only just. With the moratorium approach no longer tenable and the prospect of an aggressive American challenge through the WTO, Europe is looking for allies wherever it can find them. Sub-Saharan Africa is as good a place as any, and its nations have been persuaded that they must hold on to their 'GM free' status if they are to maintain trading links with the EU.

The EU's precautionary principle is once again being taken to absurd limits, but it is not money that is being lost this time but lives. African nations are being told that genetically modified crops will destroy their agricultural biodiversity. What this really means (unless the US, Canada and Argentina's biodiversity has been destroyed over the last decade without anyone telling me) is that their opportunity to trade with the EU will be affected. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. For a generation, the EU's Common Agricultural Policy has protected its farmers from any real competition struggling African nations might be able to throw up. Now it is telling them that to maintain what small markets they have, they must refuse a technology that could eventually allow them to feed their people and get a real competitive edge in the marketplace. Fortunately, not everyone believes GM technology is some American conspiracy to take over where European colonization left off. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa soberly warns that "the greatest risk for Africa is to do nothing, allowing the biotechnology revolution to pass it by".

It recommends that African-focused biotechnology be developed, with a focus on crops, such as cassava, millet, sorghum, sweet potato and yams. Drought tolerant GM crops are certainly on the horizon, as are other crops that can stand the challenge of growing in sub-Saharan Africa, but such developments will only be feasible in partnership with the companies of the west who have pioneered biotechnology. If an anti-biotech consensus is allowed to prosper unfettered, then the promise such developments hold out will be postponed for many years.

But some people are not accepting Europe's precaution. Jennifer A Thomson, head of the Microbiology Department in the University of Cape Town, is from a country that has decided to embrace biotechnology: "GM crops and foods are just one part of the overall strategy to ensure sufficient food for South Africa and the rest of the continent. Europe has enough food -- they don't need GM foods. But we have different needs. Don't throw out GM foods simply because other countries don't want them."

Roger Bate is co-editor of Fearing Food, Risk, Health and Environment (Butterworth Heinemann).

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