[JOHANNESBURG] The Angolan government has rejected food shipments of maize, most of which originates in the United States, arguing that the shipments may contain genetically modified (GM) material.
In doing so, the country has aligned itself with four southern African nations — Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe — which have controversially banned imports of GM food (see Famine-stricken countries reject GM maize).
Angola's minister of agriculture and rural development, Gilberto Buta Lutucuta, told the Angolan Press Agency that the food was rejected "because so far we don't know for sure what impact these products might have on either human or animal health."
According to Elizabeth Matos, chairperson of the National Plant Genetic Resources centre in Luanda, the ban has also been implemented to protect Angola's great diversity of plant life. "We are holding in our gene bank almost 800 different types of maize and local ecotypes that we have picked up from all over the country and we don't want this material crossed with GM," she says.
Furthermore, Angola has a complete lack of GM regulatory systems — there is no national biosafety framework and no legislation concerning GM products.
According to Mike Sackett, southern Africa director for the UN World Food Programme (WFP), however, the decision will "quite dramatically" affect efforts to fight hunger in Angola.
"Even before the question of the new legislation came out, there were serious constraints on our food pipeline — such that we were going to cut rations for April and May for 1.9 million people by 30 per cent," he says. "The result of this cancellation is that we will have to make a 50 per cent cut starting 1 April."
Sackett doubts whether anyone in Angola will starve as a result of the ban. But he adds that "it makes the process of resettling slower and tougher, and that much more risky". The ban is expected to cause a delay of two to three months before another food shipment can be received.
There is some confusion, however, over the government's position. No date has been given for implementation of the new ban, which was announced on 17 March. In addition, the Angolan Press Agency has reported that the proposed legislation is only the draft of a law intended to regulate the import of seeds and grains.
Nevertheless the WFP is unwilling to risk the possibility of food rotting in the harbour while the issue is settled. As a result, the shipment of 19,000 tons of cereal rejected by Angola will be rerouted to "other hungry people", Sackett says.
Milling the grain on arrival — which would mean that any GM maize could not be planted as seed — is not possible, as the WFP does not have the funds to pay the few Angolan millers operating in the three ports selected for food deliveries. And if the grain is commercially milled in the United States, less food is received, costs rise significantly and the lag time between order and delivery is extended.
The WFP has already resumed shipments to the other four countries in southern Africa that rejected GM food donations last year. The countries now receive either non-GM maize from South Africa, or processed GM products, such as a corn-soya blend, a fortified cereal protein available in both South Africa and the United States.
Authorities in the United States, which supplies more than three-quarters of the UN food aid to Angola, are currently discussing what processed food to offer next. A US embassy spokesperson in Pretoria said the United States is unable to offer non-GM seed or flour because it is impossible in practice to keep either separate from GM strains on their way from the field to the table.