September 18, 2002

SOUTHERN AFRICA: Discussion on Genetically Modified Food

United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) executive director James Morris says that humanitarian agencies would not be able to successfully end the food crisis in southern Africa without the use of genetically modified maize. Morris told Malawian journalists after he witnessed the distribution of GM maize to 390 families in Malawi's central district of Dedza, that most of the maize WFP has had GM content. "I respect the right of every country on whether or not they would accept bio-tech, genetically modified maize," he said. "It's their choice.

Morris, who is UN secretary general Koffi Annan's special envoyon the southern Africa humanitarian crisis, said that UN agencies like WFP, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation and European Union countries have certified that they encountered no health problems with GM food. He said that many people in the world have been eating GM food without any known adverse health side effects. He said the WFP would try to find alternative food for Zambia, which has resolved not to accept the GM food in any form. "But we won't be able to do the job to the full magnitude necessary without the use of bio-tech, genetically modified food," he said.

The envoy, however, said Malawi, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Swaziland have accepted GM food, while Zambia has sent a delegation of its scientists to South Africa, Norway, the United Kingdom, Belgium and the US to better understand GM food. Malawi, one of the countries that have accepted GM maize, has already started distributing without milling it first as publicly announced before it accepted the food.

Milling is time-consuming and is an expensive venture, which the cash-strapped nation might not be able to meet. In fact, at the Dedza distribution centre, WFP was distributing unmilled maize. Chief technical advisor in the health ministry, Ellard Malindi, will says, government would need K1.6 billion (about 21million US dollars) to mill the GM maize. "But we are now distributing unmilled maize because planting season is still some months away," he said, in an apparent reference that GM maize should not be planted to avoid contaminating non-GM seed. In this regard, Malindi said agriculture advisers were advising the people not to keep the GM maize as seed to avoid contaminating their usual crop. Morris expressed concern that inadequate food was available for distribution in the country.

At one distribution point, only six percent of eligible households were able to get the maize, he said. Malawi requires 208,000 tonnes to save an estimated 3.2 million people from starvation. Only 34,000 metric tonnes have arrived in the country. Out of this, 20,000 is GM maize from the US and Washington is expected to send a further 73,000 metric tonnes of the food to the country.

In the latest assessment of the food crisis threat to six southern African countries, UN special envoy for humanitarian needs James Morris also said the number of vulnerable people in Zimbabwe had climbed to 6,7 million from six million in May.

"These new figures confirm what the team and I witnessed during our mission: the humanitarian crisis is not only devastatingly real, it is also worsening faster than was originally projected," said Morris. "This crisis must be an absolute top priority for the international community."

Limited supplies of maize - and people's access to it - are mainly responsible for the increased numbers. Imports of food, both commercial and humanitarian relief has been lower than originally projected, causing prices to soar across the board. Morris attributed Zimbabwe's crisis to the chaotic land reform programme, which has turned the country from being the breadbasket of southern Africa to a net importer of food.

"Policy impediments on critical issues such as market liberalisation and land reform are leading to greater food insecurity, and are yet to be resolved by governments," Morris said. "Zimbabwe at one time was the bread basket of these six countries, so the change in agriculture output affects everyone." (MALAWI INSIDER, ZIMBABWE INDEPENDENT)

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