Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso
Vol. 7, Num. 2, 2002
Famine and dignity
Biopolicy, Volume 5, Paper 2 (PY02002) 2002
Letter to the Editor: Famine and dignity in Africa
Josep A. Garí
Josep A. Garí holds a D.Phil. in Political Ecology from the University
of Oxford and, during 2000-2002, he was a consultant to the United Nations Food
and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Code Number: py02002
Famine in Africa is again in the headlines. It results
from the concurrence of a number of environmental and social factors, such as
enduring drought, global inequalities, the HIV/AIDS epidemic impact, and faulty
agricultural and trade policies, at both national and international levels.
Overall, famine in Africa is the consequence of a lasting record of exploitation,
exclusion and neglect over its poor population.
When the scale of famine reaches a critical point
of international public sorrow, developed countries offer food aid as their
prompt solution, satisfying their charity vein. However, in this occasion food
aid has unexpectedly lead to an epic battle between famine and dignity after
the government of Zambia has rejected genetically-modified (GM) maize as food
aid in order to contain the associated health and environmental risks. The news
detonated at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held recently in Johannesburg,
and the position of Zambia soon achieved adhesion from NGOs, farmer groups,
scientists, and even a few governments. The decision, however, shocked many
countries and citizens, as their belief that donations are just to be duly taken
and thanked was overturned. Some governments, biotechnology corporations, and
influential media criticised the African defiance as absurd, fearing that Africa
was again escalating foolish governance against its starving population.
However, Zambia's decision to reject GM maize as
food aid is not a misguided action. It is rather a pragmatic response to the
continuing lack of a consensus on the safety of such crops. International law,
particularly the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, upholds the right of
countries to protect themselves against the health and environmental risks posed
by GM organisms. Why should international agreements that safeguard people and
their environment be dropped when a country faces famine? The scale of vulnerability
in Africa precisely requires that international agreements and every concern
of the international community are thoroughly respected and attended. In the
European Union, for instance, GM crops are not farmed commercially, their imports
can be legally banned, and every citizen has the right to know and to decide
whether to consume them or not. Why should things be different in Africa?
In addition, GM food aid may threaten local agricultural
systems. Poor farmers often use part of donated grain as seed since they suffer
seed insecurity alike, partly because they had to consume seed saved for the
following agricultural season to alleviate immediate food needs in the household.
Consequently, GM food grains, when sowed or even misplaced in rural areas, may
cross-pollinate with local varieties and, therefore, undermine farmer seed systems
and biodiversity conservation. In fact, the concerns around food aid are equally
valid for the case of seed aid. Some agrobiotechnology corporations are publicly
keen to donate GM seeds in agricultural emergency programmes, if they have not
done this already, which is suspicious of a dubious arrangement between assistance
and product promotion. In general, the spread of GM seeds, from either food
or seed aid, can result in genetic cross-fertilisation, especially in crops
like maize, and therefore threaten the local crop genetic resource dynamics.
Consequently, such kind of food and seed assistance may impair the ecological
resilience and sustainability of the agricultural systems in Africa, further
undermining food and livelihood security among poor farmers.
Furthermore, the diffusion of GM crops may erode
crop and livestock trade of African countries in international markets. If African
governments and farmers loose the control and capacity to track the attributes
of their agricultural production, their trade prospects will further shrink
because many European and other countries ban the import of foodstuff that cannot
be proven to be GM free, in accordance with current international legislation.
Thus, assistance programmes that claim to be benevolent and inoffensive may
result in a deeper cycle of agricultural and food crisis. Accordingly, Zambia's
position is sound enough and reflects the serious ecological, health and economic
implications of this issue for the African nations and their people.
Some countries under the lead of the United States,
in conjunction with biotechnology corporations and some major research centres,
have taken a proactive stance on GM organisms. They believe that everybody should
conform to their confidence and devotion over any new technology, arguing that
technological progress will feed the world, despite historical evidence does
not prove it. It is now shameful that the unresolved dispute around GM organisms
has been ingeniously moved from political and scientific circles internationally
to the very turf of poverty and hunger in Africa.
Countries that have a vigorous
policy towards GM crops seem to have excesses of such agricultural production
and are ready to donate it, probably because it is not easy to allocate it in
international markets, not even to convince their domestic consumers. It is
an abusive practice for countries to get rid of their GM food surpluses by dumping
them on starving and desperate people under the pretext of food aid. A poor
woman in Africa has just as much right to feed her children with safety and
with dignity as anywhere else. Good governance also means giving food to starving
people in ways consistent with international law and respecting the universal
principle that all people are born equal and should be treated as such.
Copyright remains with the author.
Published by Biostrategy Associates .