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Food aid fears stun FAO head

Food aid fears stun FAO head

Financial Times 
October 02, 2002 

02.10.2002 Zambia's rejection of genetically modified food aid, when many
of its people face starvation, mystifies the head of the United Nations
Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Dr Jacques Diouf said the FAO estimated that 13 million people in Southern
Africa were at risk of starvation.

The director-general was in Wellington making an appeal for food aid.

He said one of the principles of food aid was that it should be legally
fit for human consumption in the donor country.

But in the case of the American GM corn refused by Zambia that test was

The Zambian Government was worried that some of the grain might be planted
and cross-pollinate maize crops that, in normal years, Zambia exported to
GM-sensitive markets in Europe.

We are saying the Zambian Government has several options, including
milling the grain or heat treatment to ensure there is no germination,
Diouf said.

We don't see how a country can say that there may be risks therefore we
will not give it to the population, when there is the risk that the
population will die of hunger. Turning from the acute to the chronic
problem of hunger, Diouf said that at the World Food Summit six years ago
190 countries had unanimously adopted the aim of halving the number of
hungry people by 2015.

As about 800 million people did not receive enough food, that goal would
imply cutting the number by 22 million a year - but so far the tally had
been 5 million annually.

Indeed, the most recent report indicated it might only be half that, he

At the same time that rich countries spent almost US$1 billion ($2.1
billion) a day subsidising their own farmers, agriculture's share of
official development assistance had halved since 1990.

Unless we correct those policies, those priorities, we will not be able to
achieve the goal of halving the number of hungry people, said Diouf.

"We cannot want something and its opposite.

We cannot say we need to raise agricultural production and productivity,
and at the same time cut investment in those things by 50 per cent. The
priority, especially in his home continent of Africa, was water.

We need to focus on small-scale water harvesting, irrigation and drainage
projects, built using local manpower, to get agriculture less dependent on
the vagaries of the weather. Malawi provided a stark example of the
problem: a third of the country was a lake but lives were at risk because
of drought.

In sub-Saharan Africa only 4 per cent of the arable land was irrigated,
compared with 36 per cent in Asia, he said.

In terms of the short-term objective [halving world hunger by 2015], the
position I have always taken is that we don't need genetically modified
organisms. The varieties developed through the 'green revolution' by
classical hybridisation can produce enough for the hungry of the world.
But longer-term, GM food became relevant when faced with feeding a
projected 9 billion or 10 billion people before the global population

"We can't expand [cultivated] land to increase production as we did

Urbanisation is eating into agricultural land and we are already tapping
fragile ecosystems and facing problems of deforestation and pollution from
the excessive use of fertilisers and
pesticides. Increased productivity was therefore essential if food
production was to rise 60 per cent or so, and in that context it made
sense to take advantage - carefully - of science, said Diouf.

Advances in molecular biology that identified genes with desirable
properties and allowed their transfer represented a powerful tool and a
huge step forward on the kinds of selective breeding that agriculture had
always depended on.

But regulation, and preferably international regulation, is needed to
ensure we derive the benefits while avoiding risks to human health and the
environment. The quest for international agreement on the basis for such
regulation was part of the FAO's work, in conjunction with the World
Health Organisation, he said.

Principles have been agreed - though not yet ratified - which would allow
us to address specific issues of food safety, labelling and the
implementation of the precautionary principle.