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3-Food: Zambia's refusal of GE food did not cause large numbers ofdeaths



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TITLE:  Southern Africa famine threat is 'exaggerated'
SOURCE: The Times, UK, by Michael Dynes
        http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-550960,00.html
DATE:   Jan 22, 2003

------------------ archive: http://www.gene.ch/genet.html ------------------


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   "Dr Scott, who has been asked by the US Government to provide his own
    assessment of the food shortages in Zambia, said: 'I thought that the
    Government's refusal to accept GM maize was going to lead to a large
    number of deaths. But it hasn't. Of course you want to err on the side
    of caution. But the GM ban, and the lack of any consequences, has
    raised questions about the severity of the crisis.' "
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Southern Africa famine threat is 'exaggerated'

ENLES SINDOMBA, an impoverished mother of eight from Kabumbwe village in
Zambia's drought-stricken Southern Province, insists that her family has
eaten nothing for four weeks. "It's terrible," she said. "There is no
food in the village, and it hasn't rained here for a month."

But none of her family shows any ill-effects from such deprivation. Mrs
Sindomba is still able to breast-feed her child. She concedes that when
she says she has not eaten for a month, she really means that she has not
eaten any maize. The family still have chickens, goats and a few cattle.
They are hungry, but a long way from starvation.

It is almost a year since the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP)
first alerted the international community to the threat of millions of
people dying from a looming famine in southern Africa. But the most
relevant question now is whether the international aid agencies have
exaggerated the danger.

The agencies themselves disagree on the number of people at risk from the
drought- induced famine. Judith Lewis, the WFP's regional director,
accepts that it is difficult to obtain precise figures, but she is
adamant that those provided by her organisation are broadly correct. "We
are constantly assessing and re- assessing our estimates," she said.

Yet Brenda Cuppa, the head of the United States-based charity Care
International, said that although there was severe hardship in Zambia,
"the situation may have been dramatised to get a response".

Guy Scott, a former Zambian Agriculture Minister who oversaw the
importation of almost one million tonnes of maize during the last food
shortages in 1992, said: "It looks to me as if the international donor
community wanted to see a disaster without being critical enough."

During a three-day tour of the Zambian province worst affected by
drought, The Times found no sign of starvation.

At the Macha Mission Hospital near Choma, about 250 miles south of
Lusaka, officials said that there had been no noticeable increase in
mortality among adults over the past 12 months and no significant
increase in malnutrition among children. "People here have a way of
surviving," an administrator said.

Zambia is the only one of the six southern African countries affected by
food shortages to refuse donations of American genetically modified
maize. In the past five months Zambia has turned away about 100,000
tonnes of the maize - enough to feed a million people - that had been
earmarked by the WFP for emergency relief. Modified maize that had been
imported already had to be removed.

The absence of the maize in a country where up to three million people
were said to be in danger of imminent starvation appears to have had no
obvious effect. The fear of large numbers of people dying from famine has
not been realised. In fact, it is difficult to find anyone who has died,
and some people are beginning to ask why.

Dr Scott, who has been asked by the US Government to provide his own
assessment of the food shortages in Zambia, said: "I thought that the
Government's refusal to accept GM maize was going to lead to a large
number of deaths. But it hasn't. Of course you want to err on the side of
caution. But the GM ban, and the lack of any consequences, has raised
questions about the severity of the crisis."

Given the lack of reliable government crop data, the aid agencies have to
obtain their own. Field surveys are conducted in which aid officials
choose a number of districts, and interview respondents about their
needs. The figures are then projected on to the nation as a whole, and
calculations are made about the food deficit.

Dr Scott believes that the surveys focused on the worst-affected areas,
giving an exaggerated impression of the hardship. It was compounded by a
reliance on farmers' assessments of how much food they needed.

"If you go into a village and ask: 'Are you hungry?', of course people
are going to say they are," he said.

Not only have the food shortages been overestimated two or threefold, but
relief has been distributed badly, with some going to families who are
poor rather than starving, Dr Scott said.

"January, February and March are traditionally known as the hungry months
before the harvest comes in April," he said. "Too much rain in 2001, and
too little rain in 2002, have made things worse than normal. But the
scale of the crisis has been overstated. That may change if the rains
fail again this year. But as far as I can see, the aid agencies have got
their numbers wrong."

Dr Scott fears that the aid agencies could do more damage than good.
"Emergency food relief is supposed to be about saving lives.

It is not meant to be an exercise in poverty reduction," he said.

"If food aid continues to come into the country through the harvest, then
the price of maize could collapse, farmers will have no incentive to
plant next year's crop and aid agencies will have helped to bring about
the very situation they set out to prevent."

Mrs Lewis said in defence of the WFP: "Our job is to save lives, and to
save livelihoods. If this year's harvest is good, we will reduce the
amount of food aid going into the country."