Published on Monday, May 26, 2003 by
U.S. Exploiting Hunger to Promote GM Crops, Group Charges
by Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - A major international environmental group is calling on Washington to stop using hunger in Africa as a marketing tool for genetically modified (GM) crops produced by U.S. agribusiness.

In a report released Friday, Friends of the Earth International (FoEI) charged that the U.S. government, including the Congress, was increasingly making acceptance of GM crops by developing countries a condition of U.S. aid and food donations.

The report follows the announcement earlier this month that Washington is filing a formal complaint at the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the European Union (EU) in order to overturn a moratorium on GM food crops in Europe, and a major row that pitted the U.S. against the EU and several African countries over the shipment of GM maize as emergency food aid to Southern Africa to the help the region cope with a crippling drought.

And, in a little-noticed provision in the five-year, US$15 billion anti-HIV/AIDS package, due to be signed into law by Bush at a White House ceremony Tuesday, Congress suggested that eligibility to receive aid under the program may be affected by a country's acceptance of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).

"The U.S. should stop playing with hunger," said Nnimmo Bassey, director of Environmental Rights Action of FoEI's Nigeria chapter. "Having attempted to use USAID's (Agency for International Development) famine relief program to dump unwanted GM maize in Southern Africa, (Washington) is now resorting to even more unacceptable methods. African nations should have the right to decide what their people are fed."

"It is immoral for the U.S. to exploit famine and the AIDS crisis in this way," according to Bassey.

The stakes are very high simply because the United States is by far the world's largest producer of GM crops, including cotton, other non-food products, and food staples. It is also the world's largest food exporter and food-aid supplier.

But European countries have been wary about accepting GM products. They say GM crops have not been sufficiently tested for their health effects and the possibility that they could cause long-term environmental damage if is used by European farmers.

Washington strongly disagrees, insisting there is no scientific evidence that GM crops pose either a health or an environmental threat and that the EU is using popular fears about GM products to hide protectionist policies.

African countries have echoed the fears cited by the EU, but they are also worried that if GM crops are introduced into the region's agriculture--either directly or through GM seeds spreading through supplies of food aid--the EU market will be closed to African exporters.

The GM controversy was stoked by serious maize shortages in southern Africa late last year. Washington shipped thousands of tons of GM maize but several countries either rejected it or conditioned their acceptance on its being milled, to eliminate the chances that seed corn could get through.

The Bush administration charged that the EU was at fault for African reluctance to accept the aid deliveries, and was thus responsible for prolonging the malnutrition and starvation caused by the drought. At one point, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick characterized Brussels' policy as "immoral." The EU strongly rejected Zoellick's claims.

But the charge was elaborated by Bush himself last Wednesday. The EU has "blocked all new bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fears," he 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."

In its report, however, FoEI argues that the U.S. is forcing its own interests--particularly those of U.S. agribusiness and biotech industries--on Africans, even as African governments have made it clear they don't want GM food aid.

The report says that the World Food Programme (WFP) and USAID were both aware since 2000 that African countries did not want such products, but ignored African concerns by failing to offer an alternative and to inform recipient nations about the GM content in U.S. food shipments. The United States is by far the largest contributor of both aid and funds to WFP, which, until now, has operated on the principle that all governments have the right to accept or reject GM food aid.

The report, which was delivered to both agencies, calls for food donors to apply a set of principles when dealing with food aid in the future, including: recognizing a country's right to decide the type of food it wishes to accept, with the understanding that alternatives are available; increasing the amount of cash that can be used to obtain food aid, so that local and regional purchases receive priority; and ensuring that each country is fully informed about the content of food aid before it is delivered, and that food aid containing GMOs is clearly identified and labeled as such.

"Food aid is being used, particularly by the U.S., as a marketing tool to capture new markets," said Ricardo Navarro, Salvadoran chairman of FoEI. "Big agribusinesses are huge beneficiaries of the current food aid system. There is a need for stricter regulation of food aid to prevent it from being used as a way to open up new markets for GM products."

) 2003