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African hunger and GM maize

I read with great interest your editorial article 'African hunger and GM maize'.

After consulting with farming organisations and food policy experts in India, Genetic Food Alert became one of over 126 groups from 39 nations that signed a Statement to Earth Summit delegates condemning the United States' GM food aid policy for Africa. Your article raises some of the issues that we felt to be important in reaching this decision but misses several that were key to us. It has become clear to me that the food shortages are not the result of drought — a phenomenon that many nations have grown to expect every few years — but of economic and trade regulations that are imposed on these nations by intergovernmental agencies as a result of pressure from the US and major agribusiness corporations.

One of these, I understand, is a WTO/IMF regulation forbidding nations from stockpiling food in preparation for temporary shortages. They (or at least those nations undergoing economic restructuring by the IMF) are required instead to sell surplus stocks on the open market and to buy them back later. Thus much of southern Africa's non-GM grain was recently sold to the two or three multinational grain traders who dominate the industry. Now they have to obtain partially GM grain from the very same companies through the World Food Programme at a higher price. In this way, these nations lose sovereignty over their own food policies and have to buy GM grain even though they don't grow it, whilst the grain corporations profit twice from the sale and repurchase of these crops.

It has furthermore become clear that there are vast stocks of non-GM grain that these nations do not have access to. India has vast surpluses of grain — maybe 40 times what southern Africa needs — that are beginning to rot because their own malnourished population cannot afford the shipment costs. This grain is available on the international market at half the cost of US grain but is not being bought by the World Food Programme. The US has a 60 per cent stakeholding in the World Food Programme and there are inextricably close links between the programme and the two main international grain trading corporations. The WTO and IMF are similarly heavily influenced by the US and its corporations to promote US agriculture and trade policy. We conclude that the policies of all these intergovernmental agencies have been influenced to promote, indeed coerce, acceptance of GM food and crops by Africa.

The food aid that the World Food Programme is offering southern Africa is not, as normally claimed, GM grain — it is in fact unsegregated grain, only 30 per cent of which is GM. Despite a market premium on non-GM grain, the US and its largest grain-trading corporation have refused to segregate GM and non-GM grain. This is clearly a policy designed to force the EU to accept GM food and has been pursued despite short-term economic losses that result from European manufacturers turning to other nations for non-GM supplies. The amount of non-GM grain produced by the US (and then mixed with GM grain) is more than enough to feed southern Africa.

The argument briefly referred to by some African nations, and highlighted by US critics, that GM contamination could result in loss of sales of GM maize and meat to Europe is a distraction from the real issues. We are not aware that these nations export such products to Europe in any significant quantity, or that European GM policies impact on these nations. What your article did not mention is a far more serious concern these nations have, which is the presence of antibiotic resistance genes in this maize.

We know from recent UK research that such genes can transfer from food to bacteria in the human gut in healthy volunteers after low level short-term exposure to processed foods containing GM ingredients. We also know that the British Medical Association wants use of these genes banned. We know that the antibiotic resistance genes in some of the maize varieties shipped to Africa induce resistance to ampicillin and kanamycin and incidentally enhance resistance to related antibiotics. We have no idea what the consequences might be of exposing a large population with a very high incidence of immune deficiency (from HIV/AIDS) to sustained high levels of relatively unprocessed GM maize. If these are eaten by an unhealthy population, many of whom are taking antibiotics, in poor hygiene conditions, then how long would it take for multiply resistant pathogenic bacteria to evolve and spread across the region? Until such questions are openly and properly addressed by independent medical institutes, the nations of southern Africa have an impossible dilemma that only the international community can resolve.

Robert Vint, Genetic Food Alert (UK), 30 August 2002