GM food aid: Ripple in the WSSD corridors

The Zambian government’s rejection of genetically modified food triggered a heated debate on the right of sovereign countries to decide on the kind of food aid that they would accept from the international community.

AT the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD), the most contentious issue that was not on the official agenda, but which reverberated through the corridors, was on genetically modified (GM) food aid, and with it, questions of national sovereignty and the role of the UN. 

So much so that it became part of the Summit speech of US Secretary of State Colin Powell. He chastised governments in Southern Africa that have raised concerns about GM food aid, saying,  ‘In the face of famine, several governments in Southern Africa have prevented critical US food assistance from being distributed to the hungry by rejecting biotech corn, which has been eaten safely around the world since 1995.’  Powell was heckled and booed during his speech.

Zambia rejects GM food aid

Receiving less attention but of more importance was a press conference the day before by Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa at the WSSD explaining his country’s position on the issue. Zambia has been at the centre of the GM food aid storm, standing firm in its refusal to accept GM food aid.

Its rejection is based on concerns over the health effects of consuming GM maize, and the fear of contamination of local varieties, with the ensuing environmental and socio-economic impacts, including the loss of export markets in Europe where safety concerns have led to consumer rejection of GM crops and seeds. Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique have also expressed varying degrees of reservation over the past few months.

President Mwanawasa explained that a national consultative meeting was held in Lusaka on 12 August 2002, in which a cross-section of Zambian society had participated, including NGOs, farmers, women’s groups, church leaders, traditional leaders, members of Parliament, opposition politicians and government. The meeting had strongly recommended that Zambia should not accept GM food aid. Zambian media have been active in facilitating public discussion and debate.

Commenting on a UN statement issued on 27 August which obliquely urged Southern African countries to accept GM food aid, he expressed concern that the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) admitted that they have not carried out formal safety assessments on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  He pointed to the apparent contradiction with their statement that donors are certifying these foods as safe for human consumption. (Many critics of GMOs, including scientists, have pointed to the lack of comprehensive biosafety regulations and risk assessment systems in the US, where commercialisation of GMOs has been most widespread.

Within the US, consumer groups, organic farmers, independent scientists and even some regulators in the government have raised concerns over the lack of food safety assessment in particular.)

The Zambian President said that the FAO, WHO and World Food Programme (WFP) advice was at best speculative, with terms like ‘not likely to present human health risks’, ‘these foods may be eaten’ and ‘the organisations confirm that to date they are not aware of scientifically documented cases in which the consumption of these foods has had negative human health effects’. 

He said, ‘We may be poor and experiencing food shortages, but are not ready to expose people to ill-defined risks.’  He pleaded that Zambians not be used as guinea pigs in the debate. 

A statement of support from African civil society groups similarly reiterated that Africa should not be used as the dumping ground for GM food (see box on p. 33). This arose from a seminar organised by Third World Network during the WSSD. More than 200 people, including many African NGOs and government officials, were present to listen to Zambian scientist Dr Mwananyanda Lewanika talk about the actual situation. There and then, many participants from Africa pledged their solidarity with Zambia on the issue. By early September, more than 140 representatives and organisations from 26 countries in Africa had signed up to the statement that will go to donor governments and the UN.

‘We expect UN agencies and donors to respect our decision as a sovereign nation,’ President Mwanawasa said. 

When the issue was put to the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan by Third World Network, his emphatic response was that the UN would not pressure any country and that any food aid provided would first receive the consent of the recipient country.

Yet, Zambia has come under intense pressure to reverse its decision, particularly from the US, and the WFP statement supported by the WHO and FAO adds to that pressure.

No prior informed consent

NGOs at the WSSD published a strongly worded open letter to the US government, the WFP, WHO and FAO, urging them not to pressure hungry peoples to accept GM food aid (see below).

The WFP came under strong criticism for failing to obtain the prior informed consent of countries receiving food aid, as to whether they are willing to accept GM food aid.  And in the weeks that followed, revelations surfaced that the WFP has been delivering GM food as emergency aid for the past seven years, without telling the countries concerned [’UN is slipping modified food into aid’, by Fred Pearce, New Scientist, 19 Sept 2002].  Countries getting GM food aid in the past two years - often in breach of national regulations - include the Philippines, India, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Ecuador, as well as many African countries.

Earlier this year the Alliance for a Nicaragua Free of Genetically Modified Organisms accused the WFP and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) of using GM foods and seeds in their emergency relief programmes in Nicaragua [for details of the Alliance’s Press Release, 3 June 2002, see]

On 10 June 2002, the Bolivian Forum on Environment and Development (FOBOMADE), a citizens’ group in Bolivia, announced that a sample of USAID food aid tested positive for the presence of StarLink maize, a GM variety not approved for human consumption due to health concerns over possible allergenic effects. According to the press release, other GM varieties not approved by the EU were also found.

In view of the worldwide uncertainty over the health and environmental impacts of GMOs, Zambia thus took a precautionary approach in rejecting GM food aid.  The country has yet to formulate national biosafety regulations and lacks the capacity to conduct reliable risk assessments. Add to this the lack of information on the identities of the GM maize in the food aid consignments and the unknowns related to the different contexts of diet, health status and the environment in Zambia (as opposed to the US situation), and a precautionary approach is indeed warranted.

There are alternatives

In Johannesburg, the Zambian President made a strong appeal to partners to assist in sourcing and providing non-GM food aid.  Zambia itself is prepared to plug its food deficit with commercial imports of non-GM food. It has also received offers of non-GM food from various countries, as well as offers of cash to purchase non-GM food. On 7 October, a Reuters report cited the WFP as saying that 12,000 tonnes of GM-free maize had begun arriving in Zambia and the agency was seeking another 16,000 tonnes from within Southern Africa. 

In its latest report on ‘USAID and GM food aid’, Greenpeace argues that there are numerous sources of non-GM food aid available around the world, including the US. It states that the latest Food Supply and Crop Prospects Report from the Global Information and Early Warning System on food and agriculture (GIEWS) of the FAO indicates that there is a total of 1.16 million metric tonnes of non-GM maize available in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa.  More than double this amount is available on the world market. Meanwhile, the WFP has used cash donations from Japan and the Netherlands to purchase GM-free maize regionally. The EU has also announced that it will provide Southern Africa with humanitarian aid to the tune of 30 million euros ($29.57 million).