Famine as commerce

Food aid has long been made use of by the industrialized powers as a foreign policy tool. Today, as famine-threatened African nations are being forced to accept shipments of potentially harmful genetically modified foodgrains on pain of starvation, it has become a vehicle to advance narrow commercial interests as well.

by Devidner Sharma

NEW DELHI: Some years back, a keynote speaker at the International Famine Centre at Cork, Ireland, detailed how maize was loaded on ships bound for Britain at the height of the great Irish potato famine that killed some 1.5 million people more than 150 years ago.

He paused and then lamented: “I wonder what kind of people lived at that time who were not even remotely offended at the sight of millions dying of hunger in the same village where the ships were being loaded.”

A hundred years later, the same class of people were largely responsible for the great Bengal famine in 1943, in which an estimated 1.5 million to 3 million people perished.

As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen explains in his now well-known theory of entitlements, the Bengal famine was not the result of a drastic slump in food production but because the colonial masters had diverted food for other commercial purposes. And if you are wondering whether the same evil class of elite decision-makers has perished with the collapse of the erstwhile colonies, hold your breath.

In the last 60 years or so, following the great human tragedy of the Bengal famine, food aid has conveniently been used as a political weapon. A former executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), Catherine Bertini, made no bones about it when she said: “Food is power. We use it to change behaviour. Some may call that bribery. We do not apologize.”

Genetically modified food aid

But what is arguably one of the most blatantly anti-humanitarian acts, seen as morally repugnant, is the decision of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to offer US$50 million in food aid to famine-stricken Zimbabwe provided that it is used to purchase genetically modified maize.

Food aid therefore is no longer just an instrument of foreign policy. It has now become a major commercial activity, even if it means exploiting the famine victims and starving millions.

That is the official line at USAID about the corn it has offered to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and Malawi, where an estimated 13 million people face severe hunger and possibly live under the spectre of an impending famine after two years of drought and floods.

For the genetically-modified-food industry, reeling under a growing rejection of its untested and harmful food products, there is money in hunger, starvation and death.

Spearheaded by USAID, the industry has made it abundantly clear that it has only genetically modified maize to offer and was not willing to segregate. The WFP, which over the past few decades has for all practical purposes become an extension of USAID, was quick to put its rubber stamp. It had earlier helped the United States to reduce its grain surpluses by taking the genetically modified food for a midday meal programme for schoolchildren in Africa.

President Mugabe of Zimbabwe may not be able to hold out for long. He had earlier told the national Parliament on 23 July: “We fight the present drought with our eyes clearly set on the future of the agricultural sector, which is the mainstay of our economy. We dare not endanger its future through misplaced decisions based on acts of either desperation or expediency.”

But then, the biotechnology industry is using all its financial power to break down the African resistance. Once the GM food is accepted as humanitarian aid, it will be politically difficult for the African governments to oppose the corporate takeover of Africa’s agricultural economy. For the industry, Africa provides a huge market.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa too has said that his people would rather die than eat toxic food. While Malawi says it has no choice but to accept GM maize, newspaper reports cite Mozambique, where Malawi’s food aid has to pass through, asking the WFP to cover it with plastic sheeting to avoid spillage while in transit.

Malawi incidentally is faced with famine after it was forced to sell maize to earn dollars for debt servicing. Explains Ann Pettifor of the New Economics Foundation: “Just three months before the food crisis hit, Malawi was encouraged by the World Bank ‘to keep foreign exchange instead of storing grain.’ Why? Because foreign exchange is needed to repay debts. Creditors will not accept debt repayments in Malawian Kwachas. Or indeed in bags of maize. Only ‘greenbacks’ or other hard currencies will do.”

One of Malawi’s key commercial creditors needed to have their debt repaid, according to Malawi’s president, who in a BBC interview said the government “had been forced (to sell maize) in order to repay commercial loans taken out to buy surplus maize in previous years”.

President Muluzi said the IMF and the World Bank “insisted that, since Malawi had a surplus and the (government’s) National Food Reserve Agency had this huge loan, they had to sell the maize to repay the commercial banks.” So Malawi duly sold 28,000 tonnes of maize to Kenya. Under pressure from her creditors, led by the World Bank and the IMF, Malawi exchanged maize - her people’s staple diet - for dollars.

And now, it is getting another loan to purchase genetically modified food from the United States. USAID has surely been working overtime to create a market for its GM-food industry!

Commercial interests

The debate on biotech food however goes still further. After all, at stake are the commercial interests of America’s sunrise industry. The biotechnology industry has always been quick to use agricultural economists and Nobel laureates as effective ‘loudspeakers’ to promote the unhealthy food to gullible populations.

One of the biotech industry’s most distinguished spokespersons, Dr Per Pinstrup-Andersen, former director general of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, said that Zimbabwe was using the food to play politics. Referring to President Mugabe’s recent land-reform policies, he added: “I think it is irresponsible. Unless they know they can get enough food from elsewhere that is not genetically modified.”

And how much quantity of grain is required to tide over the food crisis in central and southern Africa? A million tonnes is all that the WFP estimates. It is therefore surprising that the WFP as well as Pinstrup-Andersen are not aware of any source of getting non-GM foodgrains for millions of hungry Africans.

Ironically, it is a country laden with overflowing grain silos and unmanageable grain reserves which came to the rescue of famine-stricken Ireland in the nineteenth century. The first shipload of grain that came for the starving Irish was from India. And more recently, India had provided food on a “humanitarian” basis to the war-torn Iraqis. And soon after Osama Bin Laden and his associates were forced out, India stepped in to fight immediate hunger in Afghanistan early this year. Earlier too, India had come to the rescue of Ethiopia at the height of the Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s.

WFP will do well to purchase instead from India, with 65 million tonnes of foodgrains stockpiled in the open, and that too of non-GM grain. With the grain from the reserves priced from Rs4 to Rs5 a kg (less than 10 American cents a kilo), the WFP will not find cheaper food available anywhere. But this will not happen or, in other words, will not be allowed to happen. After all, the impending famine in Africa opens up a new market to sustain the multi-billion-dollar US biotechnology industry. What happens in the bargain to the resulting crisis in human health and misery, and environmental contamination from genetically modified organisms, is none of the concern of the American grain merchants. In fact, it never was.

At the height of the 1974 famine in the newly born Bangladesh, the US had withheld 2.2 million tonnes of food aid to “ensure that it abandoned plans to try Pakistani war criminals.” And a year later, when Bangladesh was faced with severe monsoons and imminent floods, the then US Ambassador to Bangladesh made it abundantly clear that the US probably could not commit food aid because of Bangladesh’s policy of exporting jute to Cuba. And by the time Bangladesh succumbed to the American pressure and stopped jute exports to Cuba, the food aid in transit was “too late for famine victims.”

Food was then a political weapon. Food aid has now in addition become a commercial enterprise. Famine or no famine, the Shylocks of the grain trade must have their pound of flesh. (SUNS5179)

Devinder Sharma, an Indian journalist and activist, is the author of  In the Famine Trap. The story first appeared in the AgBio list.

From Third World Economics No. 286 (1-15 August 2002)