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Food crisis to worsen

International food security experts have warned that Malawi's food shortages could worsen as it is likely that the winter harvest will fall short of expectations. Consequently, the government has allowed the distribution of genetically modified food.
Charles Banda

In its latest report, the United States' Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) warned that "since agricultural inputs were distributed late in the planting season, the winter harvest will not yield the expected 140,000 metric tonnes".

The World Food Programme (WFP) says about 3.2 million people will require food aid to survive until March next year.

A shortfall in the winter harvest of smallholder or subsistence farmers, would mean more people in need, WFP's spokeswoman, Chigomezgo Mtegha told journalists in BLantyre recently.

"What would have been harvested would have carried many households until April next year. A poor harvest, or for some no harvest at all means households will have no food," Mtegha said.

The WFP had yet to see definitive figures on what the winter harvest shortfall would be.

The government was giving out a major starter pack to about three million people, under the targeted inputs programme (TIP). This included a packet of maize seeds and legumes, and fertiliser given to needy smallholder farmers.

"What is very evident is that the (cereal production) target has not been met, this has serious implications on how people are going to cope over the coming months," Mtegha noted.

Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Representative in Malawi Louise Setshwaelo, said the main reason the winter crop was likely to fall short was the lack of residual moisture in the soil.

"In the first place there was very little rainfall during the rainy season which ended in April and the moisture that was available was not as much as you would have had during a normal cropping season. There are farmers who are irrigating using watering cans, buckets and treadle pumps, and their crops are doing very well because they are being irrigated," Setshwaelo said.

The winter TIP was an emergency intervention in the face of the current crisis.

"Normally the inputs are not distributed for winter cropping, it's only because of the current crisis that government decided to have a winter TIP which was supported by the European Union, DFID, UK Department For International Development, and FAO," she noted.

FAO distributed to 50,000 households.

"Our distribution started in July and we estimate that 60 percent of our beneficiaries did plant crops. Of the remaining 40 percent, we know that some of the farmers have actually retained the seed to use it during the main cropping season which is October, November, December. So it has not been a waste," Setshwaelo said.

Meanwhile World Food Programme (WFP) executive director James Morris who visited Malawi, recently said that humanitarian agencies would not successfully end the food crisis in southern Africa without the use of genetically modified maize.

He told journalists in Malawi that he witnessed the distribution of GM maize to 390 families in the central district of Dedza, Morris said most of the maize WFP has had GM content.

"I respect the right of every country on whether or not they would accept bio-tech, genetically modified maize," he said. "It's their choice."

Morris, who is UN secretary general Koffi Annan's special envoy on the southern Africa humanitarian crisis, said that UN agencies like WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation and European Union countries have certified that they encountered no health problems with GM food.

He said that many people in the world have been eating GM food without any known adverse health side effects. He said the WFP would try to find alternative food for Zambia, which has resolved not to accept the GM food in any form.

"But we are not able to do the job to the full magnitude necessary without the use of bio-tech, genetically modified food," he said.

The envoy, however, said Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland have accepted GM food, while Zambia has sent a delegation of its scientists to South Africa, Norway, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the US to better understand GM food.

Malawi, one of the countries that have accepted GM maize, has already started distributing without milling it first as publicly announced before it accepted the food.

Milling is time-consuming and is an expensive venture, which the cash-strapped nation might not be able to meet. In fact, at the Dedza distribution centre, WFP was distributing unmilled maize.

Chief technical advisor in the health ministry, Ellard Malindi, says that government would need 1.6 billion kwacha (about 21 million US dollars) to mill the GM maize.

"But we are now distributing unmilled maize because the planting season is still some months away," he said, in an apparent reference that GM maize should not be planted to avoid contaminating non-GM seed.

In this regard, Malindi said agriculture advisers were advising the people not to keep the GM maize as seed to avoid contaminating their usual crop.

Morris expressed concern that inadequate food was available for distribution in the country. At one distribution point, only six percent of eligible households were able to get the maize, he said.

Malawi requires 208,000 tonnes to save an estimated 3.2 million people from starvation. Only 34,000 metric tonnes have arrived in the country. Out of this, 20,000 is GM maize from the US and Washington is expected to send a further 73,000 metric tonnes of the food to the country.

Meanwhile President Bakili Muluzi, who currently chairs the 14-member Southern African Development Community (SADC), has said if the world will ignore the humanitarian crisis the region is currently facing, then catastrophe is imminent.

Muluzi said recently that the severe food crisis facing the region was the worst in 10 years. He said at least 13 million people are already starving and the situation is bound to get worse if the world does not respond quickly.

Muluzi urged the international community to swiftly move in to save lives particularly in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

He lamented that the humanitarian crisis the food shortage has brought about is further being worsened by the high prevalence of the HIV/AIDS pandemic and diseases like measles, cholera and malaria.

The United Nations, in collaboration with other humanitarian NGOs, have since launched an 11-million US-dollar appeal to the world for humanitarian assistance. The UN World Food Programme said the food situation in the region has been worsened by bad policies concerning food and non-food requirements.

President Muluzi blamed drought and floods, which affected the region recently, as well as the general economic decline for the current food shortage.

Muluzi also said 60 million people in the SADC region are living in abject poverty.

"Our economies in the region need to grow at an average of six to seven percent if we are to achieve sustainable economic development and make meaningful impact on poverty reduction," he observed.

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