Fake Blood on the Maize (20/6/2005)

There was no tragedy in Zambia when it rejected GM food. Non-GM food was provided instead. The Zambian Red Cross is unequivocal about this, "We didn't record a single death arising out of hunger." But that hasn't stopped a sustained campaign of black propaganda.

Fake Blood on the Maize
20th June 2005

The PR exploitation of drought and hunger in Zambia shows that for the GM lobby there are no limits, even when it involves rewriting history and manufacturing crimes against humanity.

This year, following scanty and erratic rainfall, many of Zambia's maize fields have had the life scorched out of them. In some provinces the severity of the drought may mean a crop failure of 100 percent. With maize reserves falling short of the country's requirement, the Zambian government has banned the export of maize meal to neighbouring countries in a bid to forestall the looming food deficit.

This crisis is reminiscent of the crises Zambia faced in 2000 and 2002. It's not only the threat of hunger, though, that's reviving painful memories; it's also the way in which that threat is being exploited. For the genetically modified foods lobby, tragedy spells opportunity, with drought and crop failure providing the perfect platform to pressure the Zambian government over its resistance to genetically modified organisms.

So far, instead of going down the GM route, Zambia has been looking to alternatives to feed its population. Three years ago, when that strategy was first adopted, it led to Colin Powell's denunciation of Zambia at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. And Powell's attack was just one element in a virulent US/industry campaign of pressure and dissimulation that continues to this day.

The backdrop in 2002 was crop failure across much of southern Africa. Famine was said to be looming in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho and Angola. The US had responded by offering as relief its surplus GM maize, but several countries including Zambia had rejected it.

Eventually, all but Zambia were pressured into accepting the GM grain, at least in a milled form which prevented replanting. But the Zambian President, Levy Mwanawasa, would only make his final decision after a team of Zambian scientists and economists completed a fact-finding tour of laboratories and regulatory offices in South Africa, Europe and the US. Their report concluded that studies on the safety of GM foods were inconclusive, and that the GM maize should be rejected as a precautionary measure.

From the start, the US responded forcefully. "Eat GM or starve, America tells Africa," ran one Reuters headline. "Beggars can't be choosers," an unnamed state department official told the Washington Post. When the Zambians replied that even beggars shouldn't be denied the dignity of self-determination, the Americans accused them of risking a "human catastrophe".

Despite US intransigence, alternative food supplies were found and starvation was averted, as President Mwanawasa noted when addressing a public rally in Zambia's Copperbelt recently. "In 2002, there was hunger in the country and [the] government had rejected GMO maize from donors who predicted that a considerable number of people would die of hunger, but this did not happen".

America's use of potential starvation as a bargaining chip shocked many, particularly when--as ActionAid's Emergencies Programme Adviser, Donald Mavunduse pointed out--African governments and civil society organizations had raised legitimate concerns about GM. "They worry about its safety for health and the environment, how it is controlled and by whom, and about the impact of GM on the future livelihoods of their citizens," said Mavunduse. "These concerns should be addressed, not ridden over roughshod."

Even among British government ministers and advisors, there seemed a palpable unease at what was happening. According to The Observer newspaper, Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser denounced the United States' attempts to force the technology into Africa as a "massive human experiment". The paper reported that, "In a scathing attack on President Bush's administration, Professor David King also questioned the morality of the US's desire to flood genetically modified foods into African countries, where people are already facing starvation in the coming months."

But for the GM lobby, the failure to offload GM food even onto a country wracked by hunger made for a humiliating global spectacle, and they weren't about to back off. The tone had been set at the Earth Summit when Andrew Natsios, the head of USAID, had gone after the organizations opposing GM. "The Bush administration," Natsios warned, "is not going to sit there and let these groups kill millions of poor people in southern Africa through their ideological campaign".

Also on the US hit list were Zambia's leaders. The US Ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Agencies, Tony Hall, called for African leaders who had refused US food aid to be tried "for the highest crimes against humanity in the highest courts of the world." The US Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick had the European Union firmly in his sights. Zoellick linked Zambia's refusal of GM grain to sanctions he claimed the EU had threatened. The EU's Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy, described this claim as "very simply immoral".

"Zambia is a sovereign country and makes its own decisions," Lamy said in an interview with Newsweek. "Zambians do not need to be heroic to assert their sovereignty. GM-free supplies are available in surplus in southern Africa. Europe's policy is to provide food aid procured in the region, rather than as a means of disposing of domestic stocks... The simple solution is for the US to behave as a real aid donor."

The EU's Development Commissioner, Poul Nielson, also waded in, describing the claim that the EU had threatened the Zambians as "a very negative lie." He told reporters that he wanted to propose a deal to the Americans: "The deal would be this: if the Americans would stop lying about us, we would stop telling the truth about them."

The reason for Zoellick's targeting of the EU became clearer a few months later when the US Trade Representative announced plans to sue the EU at the World Trade Organisation unless it opened up its markets to American GM products. The WTO case was filed in the name of Africa.

Around this time I was forwarded an email that had been sent to a leading environmental campaigner, demanding that he spell out his position on Zambia. The sender of the email was one "Max Russell-Bennett," ostensibly a private citizen, and he attached to his email a press release from the pro-GM lobby group AgBioWorld. The press release seemed to imply that a few years earlier thousands had died in the Indian state of Orissa--victims of resistance to GM food ai

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