GM Food Aid Controversy Erupts Again in Africa (6/6/2004)

excellent article

"if the US has been hit by the rejection of GM foods in Europe, they have failed to recognise the deep unpopularity such food technology engenders. Instead, they have simply displaced the surplus – and the problem - onto populations who, because they are not commercial consumers, are denied equivalent rights to choose what they eat."

GM Food Aid Controversy Erupts Again in Africa
By Kate Prendergast

The global politics of food production has again intruded into the provision of  emergency food aid in Africa , this time for the displaced and impoverished populations of Sudan and Angola .

As wars of attrition between the government in the north and rebels in the south continue to ravage southern Sudan with the latest outbreak of atrocities in Darfur , over 1 million people remain directly dependent on food aid supplied by the World Food Programme (WFP). Similar numbers of people are dependent on WFP aid in Angola , where up to 1.5 million people remain displaced 2 years after the end of the long running civil war in the country.

An increasing number of African countries have opted to reject food aid that is genetically modified (GM) and Sudan and Angola are the latest countries to do so. Yet, with events that all too predictably echo those that accompanied the food security crisis in southern Africa in 2002, both have encountered a range of obstacles from donor countries in response.

US Pressures

In May 2003, the Sudanese government issued a memorandum requiring that all food aid brought into the country must be certified as free from GM ingredients. In so doing, the government was complying with WFP guidelines, by providing adequate warning for implementation of such a memorandum.

The Sudanese government then came under sustained pressure from USAID - the main supplier of aid for the WFP – and subsequently extended a waiver on its GM free certification requirement, first to the end of 2003, and then to July 2004. Yet in March 2004, USAID announced that it would cut off food aid supplies to Sudan on the basis that USAID does not issue certificates confirming the GM status of its food aid[1]. As a result, the Sudanese government was forced to relent for a third time, and has now agreed to extend the waiver on its demands until January 2005.

The Angolan government similarly announced in March 2004 that it would no longer accept GM food aid – principally maize – from the WFP unless it is milled. Again, Angola was following established guidelines, this time those of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), which state that all grain-based food aid should be milled prior to distribution; as well as the actions of a number of other southern African countries such as Zimbabwe and Zambia who refused GM cereals for food aid in 2002. The WFP responded with concerns that this would present major difficulties in supplying food aid to needy populations in Angola . It has subsequently halved the food rations it provides to Angola , citing the GM ban as one of the reasons for this decision[2].

Selfish Aid

As a recent report by African environmental organisations on the controversy over GM food aid makes clear, these problems arise because donors, above all the USA , have consistently used the humanitarian principles of food aid to further political objectives[3]. The US government is the principal donor to the WFP, and as such, imposes a series of stark conditionalities on its donations. The US has long used the provision of food aid as a way of dumping agricultural surpluses and capturing new markets; the use of GM food as aid merely represents the continuation of this strategy in a new form.

The use of food aid to promote the interests of American agriculture is openly acknowledged by the US state. USAID recognises that food aid has helped to create major markets for agricultural goods, new markets for American industrial exports and hundreds of thousands of new jobs for Americans[4]. Oxfam America has estimated that up to 80% of funds channelled through US Food Aid Programme Public Law 480 are spent, not in developing countries, but in the US [5]. Moreover, USAID openly declares that a major objective is to integrate biotechnology with local food systems and to spread agricultural technology, in Africa and elsewhere[6].

The dominance of US domestic interests in US food aid policy is clearly illustrated by the fact that the majority of US contributions to the WFP are in kind. This is despite international agreement that best practice for emergency aid should be in the form of cash donations. The Food Aid Convention, to which the US is a signatory, obliges members, not only to ensure that food aid provision is not tied to domestic commercial interests, but that wherever possible donations should be cash based, in order to allow countries to source food from – and therefore support - their own local and regional agricultural economies. This policy is followed by the EU, Japan and the Scandinavian countries, precisely in order that aid can be used to stimulate local economies, thereby reducing the need for further aid in the future.

In contrast, US aid earmarked for food is primarily spent within the US agricultural sector, and the food surplus generated is then shipped directly as food aid, thus boosting US agricultural markets rather than the local economies where food aid is needed. In maintaining as tight a link as possible between feeding the hungry and supporting its domestic agricultural sector, the US therefore creates an interest in the maintenance of aid dependent populations in the developing world.

If countries who receive food rather than cash donations from the US are deprived of using aid as a way of stimulating their own agricultural economy, and thus of the chance to lift local populations out of impoverishment, the provision of GM food aid incurs a range of other risks for recipients. These include a current lack of data that can guarantee GM food is safe to eat, and specific problems that may be associated with the consumption of GM foods by populations unused to them.

Zambian scientists have argued that GM foods are highly processed and are not staple foods in the US , whereas in southern Africa , GM maize food aid will be used as a staple – and will often be the only form of carbohydrate available. No studies have yet demonstrated the risks and benefits associated with the consumption of GM food as staples, or its consumption by malnourished children -  the major beneficiaries of food aid in Africa . Such a situation has led UK Chief Scientific Advisor David King to argue that forcing GM food onto vulnerable populations represents "a massive human experiment"[7].

In addition, the shipment of whole kernels and grains as food aid presents a real risk of genetic contamination, since such grains can be planted and hence cross-pollinate in countries where the capacity to coordinate and enforce biosafety regulations remains minimal. In such circumstances, African farmers would be unable to guarantee that their own produce was GM free, with highly damaging effects on both their domestic and export agricultural markets.

The World Food Programme has denied accusations that US policy means Sudan and Angola are essentially faced with the choice of accepting GM food aid or letting their populations go hungry, and have stated that every country has a civil right to reject GM foods if they wish[8]. Yet, despite these assurances, in the harsh political environment of international food aid policy, the WFP remains dependent on US largesse, and in this respect, he who pays the piper still calls the tune. As Angolans now know to their cost, the only real alternative to accepting US derived GM food aid does in fact mean going hungry.

In global trade terms, US agriculture is suffering from its decision to promote GM food. European markets remain closed to GM products, and big corporate players such as Monsanto are now pulling out of UK and European agricultural ventures as it has become increasingly clear that the hostility of European consumers to GM products is unlikely to abate.

But if the US has been hit by the rejection of GM foods in Europe, they have failed to recognise the deep unpopularity such food technology engenders. Instead, they have simply displaced the surplus – and the problem - onto populations who, because they are not commercial consumers, are denied equivalent rights to choose what they eat.

The use of GM food aid as an extension of US agricultural interests is especially alarming given that recipient countries and regions should not only be encouraged to provide food aid from local sources, but usually have enough local non GM food to do so. Sudan for example has generated food surpluses for 2004, and in Angola, staples such as cassava are grown in the north and could be drawn on to feed hungry populations in the more arid southern regions. The major constraints to such activities include poor transport and logistical infrastructure, and lack of financial support for countries to move domestically produced food within their borders and regions.

Growing Independent

Southern African countries such as Zambia who faced severe droughts in 2002 managed to cope with the food crisis they faced without drawing on GM food aid. Although Zambia still relies on some inputs from the WFP, by 2003 it was able to generate a surplus of non-GM maize – food that is now being bought by the WFP for distribution in Zimbabwe , Angola , the Democratic Republic of Congo and Namibia . With GM agriculture in the US facing a commercial crisis in European markets, it remains to be seen whether it will continue to pursue conditionalities over food aid as a way of propping up its GM sector. If so, it further highlights the need for countries such as Sudan and Angola to act with rigour in defending their rights to reject GM food aid. Perhaps more importantly, it also highlights the need for these governments to refrain from using food aid as a political weapon, and to encourage locally sustainable agricultural economies, if desperate populations are not to be kept in desperate circumstances in order to further the interests of players infinitely more powerful than themselves.


[1] U.S. stopped food aid to Sudan - Government insisted on GE free supply: http://www.gene.ch/genet/2004/Mar/msg00056.html

2 Food rations to be halved in Angola amid funding crisis and GM ban: http://www.reliefweb.int/w/rwb.nsf/0/a22a1f944a7b947dc1256e6e00355789?OpenDo cument

3 Africa Centre for Biosafety et al, 2004, GM Food Aid. Africa Denied Choice Once Again?

4 Greenpeace 2002, USAID and GM Food Aid: http://www.Greenpeace.org.uk

5 Africa Centre for Biosafety et al, 2004, GM Food Aid. Africa Denied Choice Once Again?

6 USAID: Biotechnology: http://www.usaid.gov/our_work/agriculture/biotechnology/

7 Africa Centre for Biosafety et al, 2004, GM Food Aid. Africa Denied Choice Once Again?

8 WFP says Africa can refuse GM food: http://www.bday.co.za/bday/content/direct/1,3523,1608279-6080-0,00.html

* Kate Prendergast is a British freelance researcher and journalist with a particular interest in African politics and development. Your emails will be forwarded to her by contacting the editor at: [email protected]

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