Africa is starving ... and yet it has the most fertile land on the planet. Some are blaming GM, others poor government. Who's right?


Amid the efforts to cope with a prolonged famine that has more than 30 million Africans in its death grip -- and amid the attempts by Bob Geldof to make Westerners feel terribly guilty about it -- an equally protracted row is raging about genetically modified (GM) food aid.

Nearly all of the GM aid comes from the United States. The US Agency for International development (USAid) says it has no non-GM maize -- the staple food in most of Africa -- available and that it is 'despicable' that GM critics are putting African lives at risk by opposing the distribution of GM food.

Aid charities, desperately appealing to the rich world to have compassion for its stricken African brothers, sisters and children, are themselves deeply riven over whether famine-stricken countries should accept GM food gifts.

One of the arguments used by Oxfam in its opposition to the introduction of GM crops into Africa is that food shortages result not from a lack of food but from the inability of poor countries to buy it. A smaller British charity, ActionAid, contends that if GM seeds reach Africa 'farmers will be caught in a vicious circle, increasingly dependent on a small number of giant multinationals for patented seeds'.

There are major disagreements among international governmental organisations over whether GM crops and seeds are good or bad for Africa. Professor Jean Ziegler, the United Nations' special rapporteur on the right to food, recently said: 'I am against the theory of the multinational corporations who say if you are against hunger you must be for genetically modified organisms.'

Ziegler, professor of sociology at the Sorbonne and Geneva University and the man who famously exposed how Swiss bankers grew rich on Nazi gold looted from Jews, added: 'There is plenty of natural, normal, good food in the world to nourish the whole of humanity.'

However, the GM food-African starvation issue is becoming one of the great moral dilemmas of the early 21st century. US President George Bush, prior to his current visit to Europe for the G8 summit, accused European nations of impeding US efforts to reduce hunger in Africa by opposing the use of GM crops. 'Our partners in Europe have blocked all new bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fears,' Bush said. 'This has caused many African nations to avoid investing in bio-technologies for fear that their products will be shut out of European markets.'

The Bush case is either fuelled by Machiavellian concerns or deep humanitarian motives, depending on how you interpret the man who leads the world's most powerful nation.

The Zambian government, for one in Africa, believes the Bush case is entirely Machiavellian. It banned US GM maize from entering the country at the height of its own famine late last year. President Levy Mwanawasa said he would rather his citizens went hungry than have its indigenous maize contaminated by GM and risk losing future potential export markets in Europe because its crops had become GM- contaminated.

Now, following good rains, Zambia has banned food aid altogether because it has been undermining the local market by forcing prices down and discouraging Zambian farmers from producing.

Zambia is a classic case study of how complex the food problem is in Africa and why simplistic and emotive solutions like those of Texan US presidents, Boomtown Rats bandsmen and others should be treated with scepticism.

Zambia, like certain other African countries such as Angola and Zimbabwe, has such widespread good soils, such abundant supplies of fresh water and such a benign climate that it should, given sound social, economic and political strategies supported by wisely and carefully targeted aid, be able to feed the whole of Africa by itself.

It had through the 1960s, 70s and 80s one of Africa's more pleasant presidents in the shape of Kenneth Kaunda. Unfortunately, Kaunda had faith in what can only be described as economics of the madhouse. At one time he called in the Maharishi Yogi to transform the economy, but more critically from the early 1970s onwards he set the controlled price at which the Zambian Agriculture Board compulsorily purchased maize and other staples from farmers below the cost of production.

The consequence was disaster. Commercial farmers stopped producing maize and turned to products whose prices were not controlled, such as strawberries, carnations and cattle, for export. Peasant farmers ceased producing more than was necessary for daily sustenance. Meanwhile, Chinese labourers building a railway across Zambia were producing three crops a year, including individual giant cabbages of world record dimensions, to feed themselves and marvelling that any country on earth could be so fertile.

The World Food Programme stepped in and for nearly three decades supplied 50% or more of Zambia's food needs. Zambia's failure to build adequate storage facilities for grains and the collapse of road transport systems and roads themselves that that had brought milk and other fresh produce from distant rural areas to Lusaka and the Copperbelt contributed to the decline. Only now is Zambia really tackling the surmountable obstacles that have prevented it from becoming one of the world's breadbaskets. Irrigation canals are at last being dug and simple treadle pumps, not dependent on electricity, are being distributed to peasant farmers who have been entirely neglected since independence three decades ago.

Even in Ethiopia the cat's cradle of issues is not as simple as at first sight. Our compassion, our urges to find ways to help people help themselves, finish in dead ends if we try to flatten realities under the weight of self-indulgent moralising.

The tricky fact is that much of Ethiopia, where some four million people are currently on the verge of starvation, is currently as fecund and green as any cropland on earth. The UN's newly released report on the Ethiopian food emergency reads: 'This lush landscape hides a famine that, although widely attributed to last year's drought, is the result of structural deficiencies, scarcity of land, overpopulation and lack of development.' There lie a multitude of sins that no amount of food aid, genetically modified or otherwise, can assuage.

One of the most fundamental causes of Ethiopia's recurrent famine was the herding of the peasantry into vast collective villages, resulting in a collapse in traditional agricultural production and folk knowledge, by the country's former murderous Stalinist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, currently living in luxury on a farm in Zimbabwe where he is protected by President Robert Mugabe.

The succession of mistakes, becoming a swirling vicious circle, that began with Mariam have been manifested most recently in so-called New Variant Famine, in which the HIV/Aids pandemic speeds up recurrent disaster. Ethiopia's leaders have failed to tackle HIV/Aids with sufficient resources and energy. More than two million people are infected. As the numbers rise so the number of able-bodied agriculturalists is reduced and the number of food-dependent, non- productive individuals grow.

'Aid [to Ethiopia] in the short term might have saved lives, but in the long term it seems things are getting worse,' Berahanu Nega, director of the Addis Ababa-based Ethiopian Economic Association, told the UN's IRIN news organisation. 'I sometimes wonder what a country like mine would look like if there were no foreign aid. For sure, one of the things I think would happen is that government would be much more responsive to its own citizens.' The link between state and society is seriously severed in countries like Ethiopia because of donors.

'The six million that were starving in the last famine are now a permanent food-insecure population in this country, even under good weather conditions. What used to be an emergency has become a permanent feature. Something must have gone seriously wrong, but unfortunately that discussion is not yet taking place.

'It is embarrassing for us as Ethiopians. At the end of the day, it is our crisis that we have failed to address. The food crisis is entirely our own. It is the way we handle our economy, our policies as a society, it is something we have to come to terms with.'

As this increasingly complex crisis grows, so the rhetoric increases and so the debate becomes more polarised about the Bush presidency's GM foods push to 'save' Africa. Washington and the World Health Organisation are putting severe pressures on African governments to accept GM food aid, saying the choice is stark: Either take the food or watch your people starve.

There is a debate -- too mind-boggling to pursue here -- over whether the health impacts of GM foods are the same for the well-fed as for the undernourished. But this is to distract from the main fear of African governments that American GM grain will contaminate domestic crop varieties and also leave farmers dependent on such American 'Big GM' seed suppliers as Monsanto. Monsanto sues farmers who use seeds derived from plants grown from its own patented GM seeds instead of buying fresh supplies each new planting season. Canadian and American farmers are being ruined when they fall foul of this patent trap.

ActionAid, Greenpeace and other organisations have accused Washington of using GM food both as a Trojan horse for aggressive GM seed companies like Monsanto and DuPont and also as subsidies to US farmers whose surplus GM crops could not otherwise find a market. Monsanto, trigger hair-ready to leap to litigation, already controls a staggering 91% of the world's GM seed markets.

Nonsense, says Andrew Nations, head of USAid. 'These critics may know about the environment, but they don't know about famine relief. Starving people do not plant seeds. They eat them. These groups are putting millions of lives at risk.'

The ActionAid study, conducted among nine million farmers, concluded that GM crops were more likely to benefit rich, mainly American, corporations than poor Africans. 'Instead of focusing on risky technologies that have no track record in addressing hunger, food policies should be directed to giving poor people land, credit, resources and markets so they can feed themselves and sell their surplus crops,' said the agency's report. 'Only 1% of [Western] research is aimed at crops used by poor farmers in poor countries.'

Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, the seminal book about corporate greed and branding, argues that the American government and agri- businesses are so determined to introduce so much genetic pollution into Africa and elsewhere that consumption of GM-free food will never again be possible. Monsanto et al will have won and the US will have a monopoly on the supply of essential foods, fully patented and legally protected, to the whole planet.

This is doomsday stuff. But after a war fought to wipe out weapons of mass destruction that do not seem to exist, who is sufficiently patronising to argue that the gut instincts of African leaders like Levy Mwanawasa are necessarily wrong when set against the predatory profit imperatives of companies like Monsanto?

This is a fearsomely complex moral debate that is doomed only to become more fearsome, complex and painful. And for every opponent of Monsanto, George Bush and those who would force badly thought-out aid on Africa, there is someone like Johnjoe McFadden, professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey, who argues: 'In 20 years the world will have 150 million malnourished children. Where will the new science come from to prevent their suffering?

'It's no good waiting until it happens. The really important advances take decades to develop. We need to start now. The population is rising and food yields are slowing. GM technology may not hold all the answers but it will hold some. The GM debate needs to move on from its obsession with adolescent fantasy games to consider the benefits as well as the risks of the new technology.'

01 June 2003