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Southern Africa

Uncertainty looms over use of GM foods

As Southern African countries teeter on the brink of hunger owing to a failed crop and drought, the region is undecided on whether to use GM foods donated by the US.
Rodrick Mukumbira

SADC groups South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Tanzania, Seychelles, Mauritius and Malawi. Although UN agencies like World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP) are of the view that the consumption of such foods was not likely to present health risks to humans, many of the countries in the region are still reluctant to accept the food aid.

Whereas Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique have accepted milled GM food relief, Zambia has completely outlawed GM relief and is working on non-GM commercial imports to fill its food gap. Mozambique is however barring other countries from using its ports to import unmilled GM foods while Lesotho and Swaziland, have not declared their stand on GM relief.

While Zimbabwe says it has accepted the imports, it appears reluctant to begin importations. As of September, following revelations that the country's food stocks were in their lowest, the Harare government was reluctant to give a go ahead to the sate -owned Grain Marketing Board (GMB) to import maize and cereals, after aid organisations reported that only GM foods were available.

The GMB is the only organisation mandated by President Robert Mugabe’s government to import foodstuff. The US has warned that continued resistance could slow down aid to Africa. At the same time anti-GM lobbyists argue there has been no adequate testing of its safety and charge that Africa has become a dumping ground.

Prega Ramsamy, SADC's Executive Secretary told the organization s meeting in Angola in late September that the absence of a clearly defined regional response to genetically modified food relief was a serious problem. “The absence of a harmonised regional position on GMOs is creating operational problems with regard to movement of food and non-food items which may contain GMOs. This is particularly serious given the current humanitarian crisis," Ramsamy said.

He added: “What SADC has been urging member countries to do is to accept milled GMOs, but of course each government must make its own choice”. SADC's foreign and trade ministers were gathering in Luanda for the meeting which hoped Angola would showcase its return to peace after a costly civil war.

Although Angola faces severe food problems of its own because of its 27-year war, is not listed by the UN among the six southern African countries worst hit by shortages, which analysts blame on erratic weather and poor food management. Health ministers from the region meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe, in September demanded scientific assurance that genetically modified food is safe for human consumption.

They expressed fears of unintentional introduction of genetically modified maize varieties into the region as a result of plantings or spillage of whole kernel maize provided as food aid. This, they feared, would have serious negative effects on sustainable agriculture. Maize, for instance, is known for its propensity to cross-pollinate.

WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland, who attended the ministers’ meeting, said it was the responsibility of individual governments to make decisions regarding the acceptance and distribution of food aid containing genetically modified organisms.

Zimbabwe's public service, labour and social welfare minister, July Moyo, told the meeting that scientists in Zimbabwe would supervise the milling, transportation and distribution of the grain. He later told the State-owned “The Herald” that the United States had offered Zimbabwe 17,500 tonnes of maize grain through WFP. “We have accepted the consignment and once it arrives we will make sure that we supervise its transportation, milling and distribution," he said.

The Harare meeting sought ways of supporting the health sector to respond to the current humanitarian crisis resulting from drought, floods, economic down turn and the HIV/Aids scourge. Brundtland noted that famine compromised health and, hence, food aid should be combined with health services to enable people weakened by hunger to survive. “Food shortages interact with vulnerabilities: poverty is compounded by HIV/Aids, malnutrition brings increased susceptibility to illness and is resulting in higher mortality," said Brundtland.

In an interview with Africanews in September, UNICEF Executive Director, Carole Belamy, said the UN agencies were taking the Southern Africa humanitarian crisis very seriously. She however called for a multi-sectoral approach to the problem and the strengthening of health sectors in the region, especially given the extent of the humanitarian problem.

But all is not well as regards the use of GM food. At last month’s World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, delegates professed their suspicion regarding the use of GM food. The message was so loud amid calls for conclusive research before African countries adopted GM foods. Vandana Chivas, an Indian activist at the summit, told delegates that GM foods had no place in Africa because they were a threat to agricultural production and bio-diversity.

“GM foods are a result of gene transfer in laboratories and their effects to human consumption has not been effectively tested”, says Christopher Chetsanga, the head of Harare based Scientific Research and Development Centre, an agro based research institute. Mwanyanda Lewanika, a Zambian scientist, says his country still has time to find non-genetically modified food. He says: “The acute problem will come next January or March. There is still time to look for food that is not genetically modified."

The European Union, which also resists the importation of GM food, supports the Africans, according to Lewanika. He says the main reason Zambian farmers support their government is because they stand to lose nearly US$ 166 million in agricultural exports to Europe. The UN has come under fire for supporting the distribution of GM foods. It is, however, sticking to its guns.

But while some countries reject genetically modified food handouts, others wrangle over who should distribute the donor food. Reports from South Africa say more than 17 000 tones of US maize have been lying in silos at the Durban dockside for the past month. The shipment was destined for Zimbabwe's where the government has been reportedly reluctant to permit donor organisations to distribute the food.

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