African states should not be ridiculed too hastily for hesitating to accept food containing genetically-modified seeds. But a more rational discourse is needed.
At first sight, the initial decision by the leaders of Zimbabwe and Zambia to reject US offers of maize to feed their growing ranks of starving people appears to invite ridicule. Their decision was based on the fact that the food on offer has components that have been genetically modified (GM). But the widely-feared health dangers from consuming such food remain theoretical; not one person is known to have died from doing so.
In direct contrast, the imminent starvation faced by 13 million people as a result of a deadly combination of floods and droughts across six states in Southern Africa — Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia — is very real. In such circumstances, the reported statement last week-end by President Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia that "we would rather starve than get something toxic" has a ominous echo of earlier remarks by another African leader, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, about the alleged dangers of widely-accepted drugs used against HIV/AIDS.
On closer inspection, however, the decision by Zimbabwe and Zambia begins to lose some of its apparent naivety. The real fear, officials in these countries have explained to representatives of the World Food Programme, is not the health danger that these foods represent. Rather it is that, if GM maize seeds are planted rather than eaten, they could "contaminate" local varieties. And this would mean that the agricultural produce of these two countries, including beef fed on the crops, could no longer meet the "GM free" criteria demanded by European markets.
The potential economic threat has a ring of truth. Certainly discussions that were taking place last week-end over the possibility of milling the maize before it is distributed — which Zimbabwe has demanded as a condition of its acceptance of the food — would eliminate this threat, since it would no longer make it possible for the maize seeds to be planted, and thus for the foreign genetic material it contains to spread to native crops. Here, again, however a certain amount of disingenuity appears to be at work. There is, for example, no explicit ban in the European Union on meat from cattle that have been fed on GM foods; the bans currently being enforced are on crops (particularly those coming from the United States) that are known to contain a relatively high proportion of GM varieties. And even this would not apply to very low levels of foreign genetic material.
This points to a third level of explanation of recent events, the political. And here things get much murkier, with finger-pointing on both sides. On the one hand, critics of Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe point to the way in which he has been using health concerns about the GM maize on offer from the US to fuel a broader critique of foreign intervention in his country's economy. Certainly there are justifiable concerns that, without adequate monitoring, Mugabe's officials will direct the maize, after it has been turned into flour, away from regions controlled by his political opponents.
At the same time, the United States is also open to the charge that it is using the current famine as a cover to promote acceptance of a technology enthusiastically embraced by its own corporations that remains widely distrusted in Africa. This suspicion has itself been fuelled by US frustration with African critics of its food offer, as well as its reluctance to provide funds for processing the maize. In such circumstances, an earlier statement by one US official that "beggars can't be choosers" has come back to haunt its humanitarian efforts.
Yet even those who level such charges against the United States are not blameless from accusations of playing politics with people's lives. The whole crisis of GM food aid has placed environmental groups in a quandary that may explain their relative silence on the issue. Yet this has not prevented some from taking the plunge and endorsing those African leaders who continue to reject the US offer, despite the many lives that will be lost if their position is maintained.
In reality, of course, the situation being faced in southern Africa — as in so many pressing issues concerning the impact of modern science on society — involves a complex of scientific, economic and political factors that cannot easily be reduced to any single dimension. Nor can the remedies.
This does not, however, mean that nothing can be done, even if compromises with strongly held beliefs have to be made on the way. The first, and most pressing, need is to find a satisfactory way of meeting demands that the maize on offer should be processed. If this requires further financial assistance from the aid-providing countries in general — and the United States in particular — it is a small extra price to pay. After all, the maize would have to be processed at some stage if it was to meet the goal of reducing hunger among its recipients.
Secondly, negotiators on both sides must be firm when they have reason to suspect that political factors are playing a greater role than they should. African politicians have a right to probe closely the extent to which US offers of aid that contains GM foods are being covertly used to open up new markets for US-based seed companies. US officials should give such concerns the same respect as that which they themselves attach to arguments about the way that the distribution of food aid by African leaders can be used to buy political favours.
Enhancing capacity for decision-making
Thirdly, the current crisis has thrown into sharp relief the difficulties caused when a country lacks the regulatory structure, including the requisite scientific component, needed to meet safety concerns about GM products. So far, only four countries in Africa — Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe — currently have biosafety policies. In others (such as Zambia) efforts to move in this direction are often thwarted by a lack of funding, of scientific expertise, and political will. But the current dispute has underlined that, in a globalised economy, moving in this direction is a necessity, not a luxury.
The final lesson is that much more needs to be done to raise the general level of discourse about such issues. When the potential dangers of GM foods are compared (as they have been by some contributors in African newspapers) to BSE in British cattle, the need is not to dismiss such arguments as irrational, but to put them in a proper perspective. Similarly arguments about the economic and political hazards involved in accepting GM maize demand to be discussed seriously, not dismissed out of hand. Last month, a group of African biotechnologists, meeting in Nairobi, identified the transfer of knowledge about the genetic modification of food crops from developed to developing nations as a "key topic" for discussion at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg later this month.
The potential role of technologies based on this knowledge not only in feeding Africa's population, but also in eventually promoting their self-sufficiency in food production, is an essential component to this discussion. But, as events over the past few weeks have shown, building the capacity to make sensible decisions that allow this to happen are just as important.
© SciDev.Net 2002