Beware Americans Bearing Gifts

The United States Agency for International Development recently chartered a ship – The Liberty Star – to deliver thirty six thousand tons of grain to an estimated 13 million starving people Southern Africa. The Malawian government accepted the donation, and Zimbabwe has just allowed the grain to be imported, as long as it is milled. Mozambique, however, will not let it cross its soil, and Zambia has decided that it wants nothing to do with it. Why? Because the US cannot guarantee that the grain is not genetically modified.

This looks like morbid folly, like a dangerous game played with the lives of starving people for political gain. This is precisely true. The US government has been playing this game for well over a decade; the famine in Southern Africa provides merely the latest installment.

An example: ever since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1995, the US has been exporting unlabelled GM crops to Mexico. Last year, the Mexican Ministry of the Environment found that farmers’ traditional maize in two remote Mexican states, Oaxaca and Puebla, had been contaminated with DNA from GM corn. Mexico is the world center of maize genetic diversity, and home to maize varieties developed by farmers for millennia. Africa contains vital sources of genetic diversity for breeding locally adapted varieties – GM seed puts this at risk.

The covert US introduction of GM food into Africa is pernicious, for three reasons. First, there is mounting evidence that GM crops may be unsafe. Researchers working for the British Food Standards Agency discovered last month that, despite cast-iron guarantees from the food industry, the DNA from GM crops is capable of finding its way into the human gut. Without independent research, the unfettered marketing of this food turns every consumer into a guinea pig. Because of the reasonable suspicion this engenders, the US can’t find a market for GM grain in the EU or Japan. The solution: dump it onto the starving in the Third World, thus subsidizing US corporate agriculture, and prying open markets for GM food.

The second reason to be worried is that the GM AID compromises the sovereignty of Southern African countries. These countries want safe and secure access to nutritious food, and don’t feel that GM crops fit into this agenda. When India railed against GM food aid, a USAID official responded thus: “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

A little history, please. The reason poor countries now find themselves holding a begging bowl is because of the *last* gift they accepted from the US and EU: structural adjustment policies. These policies promised financial stability, growth and prosperity. They delivered reduced levels of health, education enrolment, and employment, and increased poverty, inequality and debt- facts that the United Nations and even the World Bank are now, reluctantly, beginning to admit.

These adjustment policies demanded a reduction of national grain stockpiles because, the rhetoric ran, the market will provide. The notion of ‘saving lives through food aid’ rings a little hollow if we remember this; there were, prior to structural adjustment, ample ways to feed the people, without relying on frankenfood. Southern African countries didn’t have much of a choice about becoming beggars, but they can choose what to do next. History instructs us here too. Images similar to those that accompanied Live Aid are once again on our screens.

But these aren’t the same starving children. They’re Southern African this time, not Ethiopian. In Ethiopia, despite a strong US-led push towards commercialized agriculture, alternatives have been developed in the wake of the famine. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher won the Right Livelihood Award (the alternative Nobel Prize), by showing that it is possible for Ethiopian agriculture to produce a nutritious and diverse surplus without the intervention of the agrichemicals and ‘life science’ industries. That these alternatives are being obscured by the debate over GM foods is the third, and perhaps most invidious, reason to resist US aid.

These alternatives hold great promise for the future, but what about here and now? Several options already exist. Governments genuinely concerned about the welfare of Southern Africans should give immediate monetary aid so that food from other parts of the region, or other non-GM polluted parts of the third world, can be brought in. The HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has been immeasurably worsened by the famine, can be quickly addressed by tearing up the World Trade Organization’s stipulations on intellectual property rights. So would land reform in the region so that the hungry might feed themselves.

There is a gamut of people-centered policies that might be supported in the region. Yet we hear nothing of them from the US government. This is why for many Africans, the deliveries from the Liberty Star are comparable to those ‘deliveries’ meted out in Afghanistan. Both are ordnances of a kind. No good can come of either.

*Raj Patel is a policy analyst at the Institute for Food and Development Policy, also known as Food First, based in Oakland, California.

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