AGBIOVIEW II -- July 16, 2004
AFRICAN BIOTECH ORGANIZATIONS OPPOSED TO LOSS OF LIFE AS GM FOOD AID DEBATE RAGES
JOHANNESBURG - Four of the leading African biotech organizations yesterday issued a statement in which they expressed strong support for Genetically Modified (GM) food because “as agricultural and science-based organizations, we are against any position that leads to loss of life”.
In a statement was signed by the respective heads of the four organizations: Prof. Norah Olembo, Executive Director Africa Biotech Stakeholders Forum (ABSF), Mr. Joseph Wekundah, Executive Director, the Biotechnology Trust Africa (BTA), Prof. Jocelyn Webster, AfricaBio and Dr. Florence Wambugu, Chief Executive Officer, Africa Harvest. The four said they were compelled to issue the statement “to clarify some of the contentious issues related to the African food crisis and the urgent need for GM food aid”.
They quoted the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) as stating that 25 African countries were facing food emergencies. Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki, had declared the famine in the country a national disaster, in Angola, 1.9 million people were in dire need of food assistance and in the Sudan, over 1 million people are at an imminent risk of life and livelihood.
The four organizations said they agreed to the principle that African countries have a right to choose between GM and non GM food, “however, as Africans, we know that this right to choose is often an academic discourse in the face of hunger. We also believe in the sovereignty of our nations but believe that human life is more precious than any nation”.
The statement said that although Africa’s agricultural revival requires technology, “technology alone will not do, hence our support for good governance, better funding for agriculture, micro-finance for small scale farmers, human and infrastructural capacity building”.
The biotech organizations said the argument that donors should give money whenever there is a food crisis is flawed. They said the US - the world’s largest food donor - gave food while “Japan, Norway and the European Union opt to provide most of their aid in cash, because unlike the US, they do not produce in excess, the food required by the recipient countries”.
The statement also said that the assumption that non-GM food could be sourced locally or regionally was wrong. “If this food was available in the needy countries, even in small quantities, it would be very, very expensive. The reality is that the countries facing famine have no food at all”. The gave the example where Angola’s imported 217,000 tons of food last year, but after the countries refusal of GM food, the WFP was only able to source 17,250 tons of non-GM food, “a drop in the ocean with an environment of great need”.
The four organizations called on African and political leaders “to provide string leadership and direction” with regard to GM food aid. They said the need for food assistance should be viewed as temporary “and through pan-Africa organizations such as the New partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) and the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), long-term strategies for food security be put in place”.
* In a continent where 28.5 million people are living with HIV, food aid is a matter of life and death;
* Unfortunately, hunger captures global headlines at the height of political and natural disasters. 92% of hunger-related deaths occur away from the dramatic food emergencies
* Of the Top 10 threats to public health, under-nutrition is #1
* Over 7 million African farmers have died from AIDS, putting tremendous pressure on agricultural production
* Top Food aid Donors (2003): USA (60%), the EU (11%) and other (29%)
* Top Food Recipients (2003): Iraq (1.3 million tons), Ethiopia (1.2 million tons), the Korea (975,000 tons), Bangladesh (353,000), Afghanistan (388,000 tons) and Angola (217,000 tons)
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STATEMENT ON THE AFRICAN FOOD CRISIS AND THE CASE FOR GM FOOD AID
At the time of issuing this media statement, at least 25 African countries are facing food emergencies. Unfortunately, at this time of need, there are those who have done everything to convince African countries to reject food aid that may contain Genetically Modified (or GM) food. Already, Angola (where 1.9 million people are in dire need of food assistance) and the Sudan (where over 1 million people are “at an imminent risk of life and livelihood”) have rejected GM food aid on the advice of anti-GM activists. As African agricultural and science-based organizations, we are against any position that leads to loss of life. In this regard, we are concerned by the casual manner in which the anti-GM activists perceive the African food crisis, especially when viewed against the backdrop of other challenges such as the HIV AIDS pandemic. It is for this reason that we find it imperative to issue this statement to clarify some of the contentious issues related to the African food crisis and the urgent need for GM food aid.
The African food crisis
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), at least 25 countries in Africa face food emergencies. As we were preparing this statement, President Mwai Kibaki, was declaring the famine in Kenya a national disaster. In a continent where 28.5 million people are living with HIV, food aid is a matter of life and death. Unfortunately, hunger only captures global headlines at the height of crises caused by politics and natural disasters. In fact, only 8% of deaths from hunger occur in these types of dramatic food emergencies. In Africa, the current food crisis is not new. Last year, Africa’s hunger captured global headlines after Zambia refused GM food aid; between then and now, thousand of people have died from hunger. Hunger will claim more lives than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined!
Of the 10 greatest threats to public health, under-nutrition is still No. 1. And the situation is serious – very serious – in Africa. FAO calculates that Africa has lost over 7 million farmers to AIDS. In a continent where eight out of 10 farmers are women and the world’s worst food security problem, any food assistance should be welcome.
Unfortunately, the anti-GM activists’ position is that African governments should have the right to choose between GM and non-GM food. This is a position that we, the signatories of this statement, in principle, agree with. However, as Africans, we know that this “right to choose” is often an academic discourse in the face of hunger. We also believe in the sovereignty of our nations, but believe that human life is more precious than any nation.
We therefore call on African governments, especially those whose people face the risk of life and livelihood, to carefully weight their decisions when it comes to GM food aid. Ultimately, we believe that the vision of the New partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), to rejuvenate Africa’s agricultural sector, in partnership with the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), provide the long-term solutions to the food problems on the continent. We are also convinced that without technology – including biotechnology - Africa’s agricultural revival will not happen. However, we are aware that technology alone will not do, hence our support for good governance, better funding for agriculture, micro-finance for small scale farmers, human and infrastructural capacity building, among other urgent needs.
The politics of GM food aid
From a global perspective, the USA, the EU, Japan and the UK have been the principal food donors. Last year, the top recipients of food assistance were Iraq (1.3m tonnes), Ethiopia (1.2 m), the Democratic Republic of Korea (975,000), Bangladesh (353,000), Afghanistan (388,000) and Angola (217,000).
Last year, the USA shipped 60% of the world’s cereal food, followed by the EU (11%) and other countries combined (29%). Over the last 50 years, whenever Africa faced a food crisis, help traditionally come from these donors, and in particular, the USA. With the growth of the biotech sector – especially in the USA – the country has become the world’s most significant GM food producer. Consequently, what the US gives (in times of need), what it has excess of, that is, GM food.
The argument by anti-GM activists that the US should give cash is flawed.
The reason why donors such as Japan, Norway and the EU opt to provide most of their aid in cash is because, unlike the US, they do not produce in excess the food required by the recipient countries. Equally, the argument that non-GM food can be sourced regionally or locally (depending on cash assistance from donors) is wrong; if this food was available in the needy countries, even in small quantities, it would be very, very expensive. The reality is that the countries facing famine have no food at all.
Where possible, the WFP has sourced non-GM food. For example, in the case of Angola, a recent food donation of 17,250 tons of food has recently been substituted for maize owing to the government’s ban on distribution of unmilled GM cereals. However, when compared to last years food aid shipments (of 217,000 tons), the non-GM food donation confirms that WFP’s assistance is a drop in the ocean within an environment of great need.
GM food: Healthy or toxic?
While all is said and done, the anti-GM activists’ argument is that Africa should reject GM food aid because GM foods are not proven to be safe for human consumption. This is untrue, but before exposing the untruths, let us explains what GM food is:
GM food is produced from any crop that has been genetically altered during its production, using modern techniques of gene technology. Modifications usually involve changing one gene of the 30,000 to 50,000 odd genes that make up an organism. For example, GM maize has been genetically engineered to protect it from insects and pests by adding a gene which comes from soil, called Bacillus thuringiensis (hence the reference, Bt maize).
Although anti-GM activists say GM food has not been proven safe, so far there is NOT a single report of any GM food causing adverse effect in humans or animals. Stringent food safety and health requirements are placed on industry to ensure that crops and animal products passed through the gene technology are safe to eat. And while many common foods such as wheat, cow’s milk, eggs and soyabeans cause allergies in some people, allergenic proteins can be removed (or “silenced”) in GM varieties. When it comes to toxity, GM foods causing toxic effects are expected to be no greater than conventional or regular foods.
The WHO says that “GM foods currently available on the international market have passed risk assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved”.
Conclusions & Recommendations
a) While we agree that every African country has the right to choose or accept GM food, we believe that the right to life supercedes the sovereignty of a country;
b) While we agree that non-GM alternatives exist, we find no compelling reason for African countries to insist on non-GM alternatives when GM food is proven to be safe. The increase costs and delays in sourcing alternative food must be viewed against the urgent need to get food to the most need;
c) We applaud the work of the WFP and FAO in providing science-based clarity to the issues of GM food and for the continuous support to the African people in time of need;
d) We applaud the clarity provided by Heads of States from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), especially on the decision to accept GM grain as long as it is milled;
e) We applaud the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, for coming out in support of the GM technology and call on increased political support to this technology, given its ability to be catalytic in Africa’s agricultural and economic revival.
a) We recommend that Africa views GM food aid as temporary and, through pan-African organizations such as the African Union, NEPAD, FARA and others, implements the long-term agricultural strategies for food security;
b) We recommend that African countries identify the expertise in agricultural biotechnology and biosafety in their countries and build on this, from both a human and infrastructural perspective. This way, African can define its biotechnology agenda. Our collective view is that the immediate challenge is feeding those in greatest need through food that is easily available;
c) We recommend that African political and scientific leaders to provide strong leadership and direction, especially at this time in the debate.
Prof. Norah Olembo - Executive Director, African Biotech Stakeholders Foundation (ABSF)
Prof. Jocelyn Webster – Executive Director, AfricaBio
Dr. Florence Wambugu – Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Africa Harvest
Mr. Joseph Wekundah, Biotechnology Trust Africa
Further Research and References:
International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology Research (ICABR)
Open Letter to FAO Director General in Support of SOFA 2003-04 – Biotechnology Report
Dear Director General,
We, the signatories of this letter, are scientists and scholars involved in independent academic research related to the international implications of agricultural biotechnology. We are writing this letter to support FAO’s recent report: The State of Food and Agriculture 2003-04; Agricultural Biotechnology: Meeting the Needs of the Poor? In our opinion the publication provides a comprehensive overview of biotechnology’s potentials and constraints, and it reflects current scientific knowledge on this important subject area.
Genetically modified (GM) crops have been field tested since the late 1980s, and since 1996 they have been grown commercially in over 16 countries, including several developing countries. The FAO report points out correctly that this new technology is associated with certain environmental and health risks, so that effective biosafety and food safety regulations have to be integral components of responsible biotechnology development and utilization. Yet, the evidence so far suggests that environmental and health risks can be managed, so that there is no reason for an outright rejection of GM crops based on safety concerns. Risk assessments have to be carried out and risk management have to be implemented on a case by case for every individual biotechnology product.
In terms of the economic and social impacts in developing countries, independent studies that have been conducted over the last eight years show a fairly consistent picture. Roundup Ready (RR) soybean farmers in Argentina profit from lower costs of weed control. Bt cotton growers in China, South Africa, Argentina, Mexico, and India benefit from significant reductions in chemical insecticides and higher effective yields. In spite of higher seed prices, on average these advantages result in sizeable income gains for GM crop adopters, including resource-poor farmers. Studies even show that the net benefits for small farmers can be bigger than for larger farmers. That the majority of the farmers is highly satisfied with their GM crop experience is reflected in the rapidly increasing adoption rates. Likewise, agricultural consumers can benefit from lower commodity prices. The FAO report provides a good summary of the academic studies available in this direction. Most of these studies were published in high-ranking, peer-reviewed scientific journals. More research is needed before conclusive statements about secondary socioeconomic effects can be made, but the evidence so far demonstrates that GM crop technology can be very suitable for poor farmers and consumers in developing countries.
However, as the FAO report also emphasizes, the examples of small farmers benefiting from GM crops are still very limited in number. Most of the poorest countries lack the scientific and regulatory capacity to adapt available GM technologies to their local needs. Moreover, biotechnology products that are especially designed for poor farmers and consumers have hardly been developed up till now. Without significantly bigger public sector support for research and capacity building and effective public – private cooperation the advantages of agricultural biotechnology will bypass the most vulnerable population groups. Also, the international proliferation of intellectual property rights is an issue that requires closer scrutiny and new institutional mechanisms in order to improve biotechnology access for the poor.
Agricultural biotechnology is not a panacea for developing countries. Technological instruments cannot substitute for other important policies that address the institutional and structural problems of food insecurity and poverty. But, with appropriate policy support, agricultural biotechnology could make an important contribution to sustainable development. The FAO report highlights the major areas where public interventions are needed, in order to bring the “gene revolution” to the poor on a larger scale.
From our perspective, the FAO report currently provides the most comprehensive and up-to-date review of issues related to agricultural biotechnology and developing countries. The potentials and constraints are tackled in a very balanced way. Therefore, this publication will be an important contribution to rationalizing the international debate on this topic.
To sign this open letter and view previous signers, go to: