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3-Food: The famine that wasn't

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                                  PART I
-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  The famine that wasn't
SOURCE: The Christian Science Monitor, USA, by Nicole Itano
DATE:   Apr 9, 2003

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   "First, there is no shortage of non-GMO foods which could be offered
    to Zambia by public and private donors. To a large extent, this
    'crisis' has been manufactured (might I say, 'engineered') by those
    looking for a new source of traction in the evolving global debate over
    agricultural biotechnology. To use the needs of Zambians to score
    'political points' on behalf of biotechnology strikes many as unethical
    and indeed shameless."
                                                      Dr. Charles Benbrook
                    Northwest Science and Environmental Policy Center, USA
                                                        September 13, 2002

The famine that wasn't

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - A few months ago, a text message made the
rounds on the cellphones of aid workers in Southern Africa. "Starving
child found in Malawi!" it exclaimed.

For workers assisting in what was supposed to be a widespread hunger
crisis covering six countries, it was breaking news with a twist: a
tongue-in-cheek commentary on the scarcity of victims.

Despite predictions that 11 million to 14 million people were facing
potential starvation, few of the traditional signs of hunger had
materialized. There were no hordes of migrants leaving their homes in
search of food, no hospitals filling with malnourished children, no
graveyards filling with the dead.

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) says that famine was averted
last year because the organization did its job well, intervening before
the crisis mushroomed. Critics counter that the problem was never as
large as the WFP and other agencies warned.

The real answer probably lies somewhere in between.

About a year ago, the WFP began warning that because of drought
conditions, Southern Africa faced food shortages of crisis proportions.
The World Health Organization said as many as 300,000 people could die if
help didn't come soon, and the WFP asked for more than $500 million in
aid. Donors opened their wallets, the WFP and their nongovernmental
partners mobilized, and since June of last year, 650,000 metric tons of
food was distributed to some 10 million people. It was the largest
humanitarian response in the organization's history, though Iraq is
expected to be bigger.

As Carol Bellamy, executive director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF)
put it, Southern Africa was grappling with a "lethal mix of drought-
induced food shortages and HIV/AIDS" that required massive humanitarian
intervention. It was never a 'famine'

The WFP and aid agencies were careful not to label the situation in
Southern Africa a famine, generally defined as the mortality rate in a
region doubling with 20 percent of the children suffering from acute

"We're so used to in Africa seeing stick figures and corpses [during
hunger crises]," says Judith Lewis, director of the WFP's regional
operations in Southern Africa. "We didn't wait to see that before we
started intervening here. That's why people didn't die, because we did
our job right."

Guy Scott, a former minister of agriculture in Zambia and now an
agricultural consultant, is one critic who isn't so sure WFP should get
all the credit. In a recent study, he argues that the WFP exaggerated the
number of people in need in Zambia by a factor of at least two. He
doesn't claim that the exaggeration was intentional, but says the
organization's assessment of the situation was based on flawed data and
influenced by the government which had a political interest in seeing as
much free food distributed as possible.

Mr. Scott also points out that for a period of three months after the
Zambian government banned genetically modified American grain, the WFP
distributed less than one-third of the food they said was needed. For the
two months after that, it was less than half. If things were so bad, he
argues, there should have been some visible negative effects from these
five months. Not only is there no evidence of increased deaths, he says,
but there is also little evidence that malnutrition reached a crisis
level among children, who usually suffer the quickest in times of food crises.

Ms. Lewis admits that the international community underestimated the
African people's abilities to find ways to deal with the problem. Wild
fruits, winter crops not accounted for in food security assessments,
income from informal labor, and community networks all helped people
mitigate the effects of the food shortages. But she maintains that the
scale of the intervention was an appropriate response to the available

There is some evidence that the food shortages did increase malnutrition.
Although there are no statistics on whether deaths increased, a recent
report by UNICEF found that overall malnutrition in children - already
chronic in most of these countries - increased over the previous year.
More significantly, they say, they found that malnutrition in the worst
areas generally declined, while it increased in the best areas.

"This indicates that our response was appropriately targeted," says Urban
Jonsson, southern and eastern Africa director for UNICEF.

But most central to the United Nations' argument is the idea that AIDS is
dramatically changing the nature of food insecurity in Africa and that
our current methods analysis may not fully describe the affects of
today's food shortages. A new buzz-word

The buzz-word at the UN is "new variant famine" - that is, famine set off
by the traditional causes such as bad weather or political instability,
but exacerbated and made more complex by AIDS.

Alex de Waal, a program director at the UN and the author of the "new
variant" idea, says that because AIDS often hits the able-bodied,
traditional statistics such as childhood malnutrition rates fail to
reflect the magnitude of the crisis. If laborers weakened by AIDS are
unable to sow and reap, a mild food shortage can be made worse. Because
of this, the need to intervene at an earlier point is greater. Deaths,
then, should no longer be the measure of a "new variant" famine.

"There's a tendency for people to say that because this doesn't look like
what we think of as a famine, it isn't one," he says. "It's much more
like famines we've had in Asia, where you have social status and it's the
people on the bottom who suffer.... There are no famine camps [in
Southern Africa], so it's not as visible. But that doesn't mean there
aren't people dying and suffering."

                                  PART II
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TITLE:  Famine as commerce
SOURCE: India Together, by Devinder Sharma
DATE:   August 2002

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Famine as commerce

The foisting of genetically engineered food on the famine-stricken
nations of Africa is morally repugnant, says Devinder Sharma

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 the elite decision-makers has
perished with the collapse of the erstwhile colonies, hold your breadth.

In the last 60 years or so, following the great human tragedy of the
Bengal famine, food aid was conveniently used as a political weapon. 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 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 the 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
mid-day meal programme for school children in Africa.

President Mugabe may not be able to hold for long. He had earlier told
Zimbabwe's Parliament on July 23: " 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 take-over 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, from 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 from
the United States. Sure the USAID has been working overtime to create a
market for its genetically modified food industry !

The debate on biotech food however goes still further. After all, it is
the commercial interest 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 on
gullible populations. One of its most distinguished spokesperson, 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

And how much quantity of grain is required to tide over the food crisis
in central and southern Africa? A million tonne, is all that the WFP
estimates. Surprising that the WFP as well as Pinstrup-Andersen are not
aware of any other source of getting non-GM foodgrains for millions of
hungry Africans. Ironically, the country which is laden with overflowing
grain silos and an unmanageable grain reserves is the one to have come to
the rescue of a 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 'humanitarian' basis to the
war-torn Iraqis'. And soon after Bin Laden and his associates were forced
out, India had 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.

With 65 million tonnes foodgrains stockpiled in the open, and that too of
non genetically modified grain, WFP will do well to purchase instead from
India. With the grain from the reserves priced at Rs 4 to Rs 5 a kg (less
than 10 American cents a kilo), the WFP will not find cheaper food
available anywhere. But this will not happen, 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 environment contamination from GMOs 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.

Devinder Sharma
August 2002

Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Among
his recent works include two books GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In
the Famine Trap