East Africa: Hungry Nations Demand Truth About GM Food Aid
Ebenezer T. Bifubyeka Curitiba, Brazil PANOS (London), March 22, 2006
The recipients of food aid for decades, poor and hunger-stricken countries in East Africa say they will continue to reject genetically modified (GM) food aid until an effective labelling system is put in place.
Labelling GM foods, because of health and environmental risks, was the subject of heated debates at the just-concluded meeting of the international Biosafety Protocol in Curitiba before a compromise deal was finally struck on the night of March 17.
According to the deal, if an exporter knows that a shipment contains Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) then labels must be explicit and declare that it 'contains' GMOs. However, negotiators struck a compromise after the delegations of Mexico and Paraguay argued that verification was not always possible because the supply chain couldn't be tested all the way down to the source.
As a result, the conference allowed a provision for exporters to use 'may contain' for up to six years if they are not sure about the origin or presence of GMOs in the shipment. The Protocol will review the suitability of this arrangement at its meeting in four years' time.
In the face of famine
The agreement comes at a time when millions of people are facing hunger in East Africa. It follows the decision by the government of Zambia to reject food aid from the United States in 2002 on the grounds that it contained GM corn.
According to Gordon Simango, information officer for Christian Care, an NGO in Zambia, nearly 2.7 million people in Uganda are at risk of hunger. However, he says, most organisations delivering food aid do not have policies on GM food, except a few that say: 'all beneficiaries have the right to choose and decide if they want GM food aid or not '
One way around the problem, he says, is that donors could offer 'cash-based food aid' whereby they give cash to buy food, instead of food consignments which in any case "can go bad in transit."
Critics also point out that the deal has many loopholes, not least the fact that the obligations only apply to member-states of the Biosafety Protocol. As for non-members - the United States is the most prominent one - the Protocol does no more than urge compliance.
Nnimmo Bassey of the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth, an international NGO, said governments cannot afford to wait for four years to review their policies. "We shouldn't wait for GMOs to multiply and then start trying to control them later when they are already uncontrollable," he said.
"African leaders should start transferring food from upcountry, where there is plenty of food, to famine-stricken areas and not just rely on imported GM food or plants whose side-effects are still obscure."
Making informed choices
A Ugandan government delegate, who requested anonymity, said it was not for governments to tell hungry people what to eat. "For us, we tell our people the truth about food containing GMOs. It is the decision of an individual receiving GM food to decide either to eat it or reject it."
He said Uganda is in the process of creating a biosafety framework and has started training scientists to analyse GMOs.
"A draft [of the framework] has been made by the National Council of Science and Technology and it is ready for approval. Besides, we have a fully-equipped research laboratory at Kawanda Country Research Institute (in Kampala) and it will start operating once the law is ready."
Not only Uganda, delegates from several other African countries, such as Namibia and Ghana said they were drafting laws and setting up national testing facilities for GMOs.
But many also pointed to the urgent need to inform farmers back home of the decisions made at Curitiba.
"Some delegates come here and, after attending the meetings, they go back and don't bother to pass on the information down to their farmers," complained a delegate from Mauritius.
Science and Biotechnology
Food, Agriculture and Rural Issues
Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, head of the African Group and Director General of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia, said that food aid labels should reveal exactly what they contain.
"Besides, donors must be liable for any misinformation that may be discovered afterwards on both environment and health. Food aid is governed by the rules of the Protocol to make sure that there is no contamination in the environment and health," he added.
Ebenezer T Bifubyeka is a reporter with The New Vision newspaper in Uganda and founder of the Mbarara Environmental Advocates Link (MEAL), which seeks to create environmental awareness among local leaders, politicians, academics and the general public.
His coverage of GM issues has won him a Panos fellowship to report on the WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in December 2005 and from the CBD meeting in Brazil in March 2006.
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