Today in AgBioView from http://www.agbioworld.org December 14, 2005
* WTO GM Trade War - Has Europe Lost The Case?
* Protesters Attempt to Influence World Trade Talks
* Would High Lethal Dose Inhibit Resistance to Bt?
* Re: Schubert - Is Plant Breeding Different from GM?
* Favorite Papers for 2005: Safety in Conventional Status Quo?
* Agricultural Biotechnology: Facts, Analysis and Policies
* Producers Argue for Sound Science, Some Consumers Prefer Precautionary
* Should We Make A Fuss? A Case For Social Responsibility In Science
* The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture
* Zambian Government Acts to Speed Up (GM) Maize Importation
* Serious Concern About Food Situation in Southern Africa
* Famines, Fallacies and Free Markets
WTO GM Trade War - Has Europe Lost The Case?
- Friends of the Earth, Dec. 14. 2004
The Deputy Director General of the World Trade Organisation has today
(Weds) refused to confirm rumours that Europe has lost the transatlantic
trade dispute on genetically modified (GM) foods. One of the issues at
stake is whether European countries can continue to maintain national bans
on the import of GM products on a country by country basis.
Former WTO chief, Supachai Panitchpakdi, suggested recently that Europe
had lost the trade dispute, a view confirmed last week by the French
International Trade Minister, Christine Lagard. Deputy Director General of
the WTO Alejandro Jara refused to comment on the statements from Supachai
The WTO is due to issue its draft final report on the GM trade dispute
lead by the US against Europe on 5 January 2006.
Protesters Attempt to Influence World Trade Talks
- Environment News Service, December 14, 2005
HONG KONG, China, (ENS) - Campaigners today delivered a petition to World
Trade Organization (WTO) Director General Pascal Lamy during trade talks
taking place at the Hong Kong Convention Centre. The petition opposing the
WTO trade dispute over genetically modified (GM) food filed by the United
States, Argentina and Canada was signed by more than 135,000 people from
100 countries and more than 740 organizations representing 60 million
French Farmer José Bové, Indian ecologist Vandana Shiva, and Caroline
Lucas, Green Party Member of the European Parliament for the UK, are among
those who delivered the petition. Bové said, "Farmers and consumers
strongly oppose genetically modified organisms. We will take action to
keep Europe free from GMOs and to protect the world from GM farming."
Through the petition citizens ask the WTO not to undermine the right of
individual countries, in this case European countries, to take appropriate
steps to protect their farmland, environment and consumers from the risks
posed by genetically modified foods and crops. Green Party WTO delegate
Caroline Lucas MEP said, "The right of individual countries to decide
whether or not to allow GMOs in their food chains or their environment is
a key element of the democratic principles which are supposed to underpin
the EU itself. Neither the WTO nor the EU have any right to overrule the
clear majority of EU citizens who do not want GMOs in their communities."
In their complaint United States, Argentina and Canada allege that the
Europe Union has refused to give the approval to a number of new
genetically modified foods, has stopped processing the applications for
new genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and has not taken action to
stop EU member states from banning genetically modified products.
The U.S. argues that Europe's position on GMOs violates WTO rules and is a
barrier to trade. In particular, it claims that US farmers have lost
exports because they grow GM crops not approved in Europe.
President George W. Bush later added that the EU’s moratorium was impeding
efforts to feed the world. "European governments should join - not hinder
- the great cause of ending hunger in Africa,” he said.
Indian Ecologist Vandana Shiva said in Hong Kong, "The transatlantic trade
dispute shows the worst face of the WTO. Despite the fact that the UN
Biosafety Protocol allows countries to use the Precautionary Principle to
ban the import of GMOs, the WTO may force feed us GMOs anyway"
The WTO is expected to issue an interim ruling on January 5, 2006. In line
with WTO secrecy, the draft ruling will only be made available to the
countries in the dispute. This will form the basis for the final ruling
expected later on in March or April.
Would High Lethal Dose Inhibit Resistance to Bt?
- Lance Kennedy, Tantec, lance.at.tantec.co.nz
I would like to put a question to readers of this newsletter.
It seems that resistance to a pesticide such as Bt toxin in a GM plant is
feared. As I understand it, resistance by a pest to a pesticide is gained
by a slow process over many generations. The mechanism is that a dose of
pesticide that is almost lethal wipes out most pests. The survivors are
those that are a bit more resistant by normal genetic variation. The
population recovers and is hit again by an almost lethal dose. Over many
generations of this process, fully resistant pests arise.
However, this requires that the dose of pesticide each time is low enough
to permit some survivors.
It strikes me that a plant such as GM cotton will deliver a 100% lethal
dose each time. Any pest eating the plant dies. No survival = no
Could anyone please comment on this logic. If wrong, let me know where I
went wrong. Thanks.
Re: Schubert - Is Plant Breeding Different from GM?
- Martin Mieschendah, martin.mieschendahl.at.uba.de
A response to Bruce M. Chassy
There is no doubt than genetic engineering breeding may lead to unintended
effects (see e.g. Tab. 6 in H. Kuiper et al.: Assessment of the food
safety issues related to genetically modified foods, The Plant Journal
27(6), 503-528, 2001). But these risk are not different form those of
To my knowledge so far only conventional bred plant varieties causing
negative effects to the consumers have found its way to the market and had
to be withdrawn. These were the potato variety Lenape that contained very
high levels of toxic solanine, a pest-resistant celery variety that caused
rashes in agricultural workers as it contained seven-fold more of the
carcinogen psoralen than the control celery, and a traditionally bred
squash that caused food poisoning (see e.g. AG Haselberger: Codex
guidelines for GM food include the analysis of unintended effects, Nature
Biotechnology 21-7, 739-741, 2003).
Favorite Papers for 2005: Safety in Conventional Status Quo?
- From Wayne Parrott
This past year I have been setting aside some papers that have crossed my
desk. They caught my attention because they highlight the normal behavior
of plants and agroecosystems. Everyone of these papers is about
NON-transgenic crops and conventional agriculture. They caught my
attention because if any single one of these had been associated with
transgenes, an uproar would likely have ensued.
I wanted to call these to your attention because they highlight the lack
of perspective and the double standard that continues to persist in the
field. I've added my editorial remarks after each title. Enjoy.
Can almond nectar & pollen poison honey bees? (Kevan & Ebert. 2005.Am. Bee
J. June 507-509)
- Yes, the pollen is toxic.
Mediation of pathogen resistance by exudation of antimicrobials from roots
(Bais et al., 2005.Nature 434:217-221)
- Plants make and secrete toxins into the soil that kill potential
Reduced fitness of the Colorado potato beetle on potato plants grown in
manure-amended soil (Alyokhin & Atlihan. 2005. Environ. Entomol.
- Nice organic fertilizer can have negative impacts on potato beetles.
Who knows what happens to those poor critters who depend on potato beetles
for their livelihood.
Long-term effects of crop management on Rhizobium leguminosarum biovar
viciae populations. (Depret et al., 2004. FEMS Microbiol. Ecol. 51:87-97)
- Normal crop rotations can alter soil microbial populations-- my guess is
far more than Bt exudates ever could.
Copper amendment of agricultural soil selects for antibiotic resistance in
the field. (Berg et al., 2005. Lett. Appl. Microbiol. 40:146-151)
- Perhaps Cornell's Environmental Impact Quotient should be amended to
increase copper's hazards?
Andrew Apel comments on this further:
In regulatory matters, the doctrine of substantial equivalence has acted
more or less effectively as a counterweight to the precautionary
principle. Under the doctrine, if novel products are substantially
equivalent to those currently on the market, they can be treated in a
substantially equivalent way. However, application of the doctrine has
been restricted to food and feed products.
Wayne's "Favorite papers for 2005" and other papers presented here in a
similar vein suggest that the doctrine of substantial equivalence deserves
to be extended to cover environmental impacts and genetic modifications.
This would yield interesting avenues of inquiry and force valid
The making of inappropriate comparisons plagues agricultural research.
Consistently, trials of novel crops and crop protection products compare
trial results to either "organic farming" results, or to "no farming at
all" results. Quite credible scientists engage regularly in this sort of
"comparison bias," which is inherently weighted against technology, and
especially against novel technology. There will always be a side-effect
not encountered in "organic farming" or "not farming at all," and if this
side-effect is even notionally adverse, the technology being tested
automatically becomes questionable.
Extending the doctrine of substantial equivalence to environmental impacts
and genetic modifications would get around these improper and often
So for instance, one might ask, are Bt crops substantially as poisonous to
honeybees as almonds? If so, should they be regulated in the same manner
as almonds? (Which is to say, not at all)
One might also ask, is the impact of RR crops on soil microflora
substantially equivalent to the impact of root-expressed antimicrobials in
weed populations? If so, should RR crops be regulated in the same manner
as weeds? (Which is to say, not at all)
Or one might question whether transfection is substantially equivalent to
the activity of helitrons. If yes, should transfection be regulated as
tightly as helitrons are? (Which is to say, not at all)
This strikes me as eminently reasonable, and further points out how the
precautionary principle could play a valid, well-defined role in
regulatory decision-making. At the heart of the doctrine of substantial
equivalence is the notion that new products and processes should be
evaluated in terms of what is both familiar and understood. If a new
product or process cannot be evaluated on those terms, i.e., is so novel
that meaningful comparisons to current products or processes cannot be
made, then evaluation becomes impossible and the PP can, and should, be
applied. Off-hand, I can't offer an example of technology that should be
handled that way, but my suspicion is that there's lots of it in various
laboratories, and will never leave these labs until the PP has been
satisfied and the novelty has worn off to the point where it's
understandable in terms of the familiar.
Agricultural Biotechnology: Facts, Analysis and Policies
- Ravello, Italy; June 29 - July 2, 2006.
Conference of the International Consortium on Agricultural Biotechnology
Contact Prof. Vittorio Santaniello, University of Rome " Tor Vergata "-
Producers Argue for Sound Science, Some Consumers Prefer Precautionary
- Daryll. E. Ray, Southwest Farm Press, Dec. 14, 2005 (Forwarded by Andy
The precautionary principle is what our mothers were talking about when
they told us that it is better to be safe than sorry.
U.S. agricultural and trade negotiators have been pressuring the Japanese
to reopen their market, which has been closed to U.S. beef since BSE
(Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy or mad cow disease) was first detected
in the U.S. herd at the end of 2003. The U.S. is also in a trade dispute
with the EU (European Union) over the EU's restrictions on the importation
of GMO (genetically modified organism) crops. In both cases the United
States has argued that, on the basis of "sound science," both of these
trade restrictions ought to be lifted.
On the face of it, it would seem that the U.S. argument is very strong.
After all, how could and why would one argue against sound science? For
their part, the Europeans and the Japanese defend their actions on the
basis of the "precautionary principle." The precautionary principle is
what our mothers were talking about when they told us that it is better to
be safe than sorry. As long-term readers of this column know, we have
written about these issues before. Our analysis of these two trade
disagreements has been based on two ideas. The first is couched in
economic terms arguing that the "customer is always right."
If the Japanese are willing to pay for the BSE testing of every head of
beef, the idea that the customer is always right would suggest that we
would agree to the testing. Likewise, if the Europeans want non-GMO grain,
then U.S. farmers ought to be working to provide them with non-GMO grain.
Our second idea has been to identify why customers might assess the risk
of GMO grains differently than the producers. After all, growing GMO crops
makes it easier for producers to control weeds and insects. While
producers receive the benefits, customers take the risks if at a later
time it were to be shown that GMO crops posed some health risk. It makes
no difference how low the probability of that event is? The probability is
nonzero and therefore important in minds of some customers.
This past summer we read a paper presented by Priya Om Verma and William
R. Freudenberg at the 2005 Rural Sociological Society Annual Meeting that
took a different look at the conflict between those advocating for the use
of sound science and those advocating for the use of the precautionary
principle in decision making. Verma and Freudenberg, of the University of
California, Santa Barbara, argue that "the precautionary principle may be
the more scientific of the two approaches."The core of their analysis
reduces the two arguments to their essentials. Those using the sound
science as the justification for their policies - pressuring Europeans to
buy GMOs or Japanese to purchase U.S. beef - are arguing that something is
safe unless it is proven to be hazardous.
Thus, declaring something is safe runs the statistical risk that it is
not. Those supporting the precautionary principle are arguing that when
there is a potential risk to life and safety, the prudent course of action
is to err on the side of caution, risking the chance that one may reject
an action or product as unsafe when in fact it may be safe. Hurricane
Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans provide us with a chance to apply
these concepts to a situation most of us are familiar with. Those
officials who supported cutting back on levee repairs were arguing that
the likelihood of a Category 3 hurricane that would cause a breach in the
levees was very small and that the money would be better spent elsewhere.
This is the sound science argument which takes the risk assuming the
levees will hold when in fact they won't. Those who were arguing for the
levee expenditures and protecting the wetlands surrounding New Orleans
were basing their argument on the precautionary principle. As we have
seen, the sound science argument favors short-term economic gain over
against the potential of catastrophic long-term costs. In this case we can
see that an ounce of prevention would have been worth more than a pound of
cure.?Applying this back to the case of GMO sales to the Europeans, the
United States is arguing in favor of immediate economic gains from
increased trade over and against long-term health and/or safety problems
that may arise if it were to turn out that GMOs pose a risk that does not
show up for 10, 20, or 30 years.
Similarly, in the case of the sale of beef to the Japanese, the United
States is arguing that the extra cost of testing each head of beef sold to
the Japanese is unnecessary, given the low chance that any one animal
would have BSE. The Japanese are arguing that given the long-term risks -
if one imports enough untested beef, sooner or later a BSE positive animal
will slip through - the cost of testing is a small price to pay for
increased long-term safety.??As Verma and Freudenberg note, statistics
teach us that these two risks are closely related. As one reduces the
chance of making a short-term error - rejecting a product as unsafe when
it is in fact safe - one increases the chance of making a long-term error.
There is a tradeoff between these two types of errors. We cannot have our
cake and eat it too.?Their argument that the "precautionary principle" may
be the more scientific of the two approaches is based on their contention
that "the precautionary principle recognizes the reality of scientific
unknowns and acknowledges . . . scientific uncertainty."
They go on to say, "Under conditions of scientific uncertainty, judging
what is an acceptable level of risk for society is an inherently political
responsibility . . . These are value-laden processes that reflect
differing perspectives regarding what ought to be 'society's' preferences
for short-term economic risks versus longer-term risks to health and the
Daryll E. Ray holds the Blasingame Chair of Excellence in Agricultural
Policy, Institute of Agriculture, University of Tennessee, and is the
Director of UT's Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC);
http://www.agpolicy.org. Daryll Ray's column is written with the research
and assistance of Harwood D. Schaffer, Research Associate with APAC
Should We Make A Fuss? A Case For Social Responsibility In Science
- Jon Beckwith and Franklin Huang, Nature Biotechnology 23, 1479-1480,
Dec. 2005. www.nature.com/nbt . Reproduced in AgBioView with the
permission of the editor.
If society is to remain in step with new technology, the scientific
community needs to be better educated about the social and ethical
implications of its research.
Thomas Hunt Morgan, who was on the board of the US Eugenics Record Office
in 1915, failed to publicly challenge the co-option of genetics to justify
public eugenics programs. "If they [eugenicists] want to do this sort of
thing, well and good...but I think it is just as well for some of us to
set a better standard, and not appear as participators in the show. I have
no desire to make any fuss." (Thomas Hunt Morgan, 1915)
"People keep asking me why I do not rebut The Bell Curve. The answer is
because it is so stupid, it is not rebuttable." (David Botstein, 1997)
Two geneticists, nearly a century apart, react to critical moments in the
interface between genetics and society. Thomas Hunt Morgan, arguably the
leading geneticist of his day, responds to the claims and activities of
the eugenics movement, which had a profound social influence in the United
States. More recently, David Botstein, one of the architects of human
genome mapping, comments on the book, The Bell Curve, in which authors
Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray provided genetically based arguments
for changing social policies in areas, such as welfare and education,
policies that parallel those of the eugenicists. Both Morgan and Botstein
are disdainful of these uses of genetics by others to argue for the
intellectual and social inferiority of lower social classes and various
ethnic groups. Yet, Morgan, in a private letter, and Botstein at a
conference on the Human Genome Project disavow any need for them, as
scientists, to respond to these arguments.
Why engage the public? A majority of the early geneticists may have
considered the claims of eugenicists as poor science and may have abhorred
the sterilization, miscegenation and immigration restriction laws that
were passed with support of eugenicists. And most geneticists today
probably reject the genetic claims of Herrnstein and Murray and the social
prescriptions they offer. But few spoke publicly about the flaws in the
scientific reasoning and the unwarranted extension of questionable
conclusions from genetics into the realm of social policy.
Should geneticists have played a role in these very public controversies?
Do scientists have a responsibility to participate in public discussions
about the implications of their science? We would argue that there are
many cases where scientists should indeed 'make a fuss.' When social harm
may result from the misuse and misrepresentation of science, who better to
present the criticisms, describe the uncertainties or identify the
falsehoods than scientists knowledgeable in the relevant field? Who better
to point out, for example, that research and conclusions in the study of
human behavior are often influenced by the social attitudes of
researchers? Yet, although the scientists with an interest in influencing
social policy often go public because of their strong belief in the
conclusions of the research, scientists who see the flaws in the research
are much less likely to confront the issues in a public setting. The
impact on society is thus skewed.
Laissez-faire and denial. Why do scientists choose not to engage in those
social debates that have important scientific components? When challenged
to consider such activism, scientists often respond: "My role is just to
do my science. It is up to the politicians to decide how it is used." This
laissez-faire attitude is fostered by the education of scientists. In the
life sciences, many of us were trained to think of ourselves as working in
the 'ivory tower' mode--seekers of truth uncontaminated by the outside
world. Few students of science receive as an integral part of their
scientific education an analysis of the social impact of science and
rarely is there a mention of social responsibility. We learn of none of
the history of those periods when scientists became active in confronting
the social consequences of their field.
Most notably, after atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, nuclear physicists
who participated in the Manhattan Project came to question what they had
been doing. Highlighted by J. Robert Oppenheimer's plaint that "physicists
have known sin," a resistance movement arose that influenced the broader
community of physicists. These 'awakened' scientists started the socially
concerned "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists" and spoke out, lobbied and
even went door-to-door seeking a ban on the testing of atomic weapons in
the 1950s and 1960s.
Anthropologists, particularly in the latter half of the 20th century, were
forced to consider the ethics of their field research because of its
obvious impact on the groups they studied. Although it may be less obvious
to geneticists and other biological scientists that the products of their
field can have profound effects on society, the impact is no less
The 1960s saw another stirring of the scientific conscience. Initially
provoked by the use of science for the development of war technologies in
Vietnam, scientists in the United States, Europe and elsewhere (including
one of the authors of this piece) began to examine the social role of
their own fields. Geneticists publicly criticized the faulty arguments of
psychologist Arthur Jensen about heredity, race and IQ. Others raised
concerns about the potential dangers of genetic engineering. Some were
active in opposing efforts to water down or eliminate the teaching of
evolution in schools. For a relatively brief period, many in the
biological community became active.
Thus, a sense of social responsibility in science has emerged from time to
time in spite of the fact that scientists were not prepared by their
training to think about these issues. Their activism was stimulated by
crises, such as the use of atomic weapons or the political environment of
the 1960s. These events, not the education of the scientist, were the
'educational moments' that generated social responsibility among
What to do? Waiting for such crises will not do. More science is being
conducted today than at any time in the history of the world and its
consequences for society are expanding correspondingly. The research
enterprise both reflects and influences social policy. It is more
necessary than ever that scientists be part of the public conversation
that fosters both an understanding of science and shapes the impact
science will have on society.
Instead of responding to crises, scientists should be prepared by their
courses and by their mentors for this component of being a scientist. We
propose that education at the graduate level should include the study of
the social implications of science and the historical instances where
scientists have spoken out. Such courses should be supported by policies
at the academic institutional level. Furthermore, the adoption of
social/public service requirements of scientists during their graduate
study, whether this involves working in developing countries or mentoring
high school students in the community, may help broaden the perspectives
of budding scientists.
If a goal of scientific training is to help scientists to be more critical
thinkers, then preparing them to be engaged in looking critically at the
social implications of their science can only aid in achieving that goal.
Jon Beckwith is in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics,
Harvard Medical School, jbeckwith.at.hms.harvard.edu; Franklin Huang is in
the Division of Hematology/Oncology, Children's Hospital, Karp Family
Research Laboratories, Boston
The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture
- New book by Eugene Thacker, June 2005, ISBN 0-262-20155-0, 464 pp.
In the age of global biotechnology, DNA can exist as biological material
in a test tube, as a sequence in a computer database, and as economically
valuable information in a patent. In The Global Genome, Eugene Thacker
asks us to consider the relationship of these three entities and argues
that -- by their existence and their interrelationships -- they are
fundamentally redefining the notion of biological "life itself."
Biological science and the biotech industry are increasingly organized at
a global level, in large part because of the use of the Internet in
exchanging biological data. International genome sequencing efforts,
genomic databases, the development of World Intellectual Property
policies, and the "borderless" business of biotech are all evidence of the
global intersections of biology and informatics -- of genetic codes and
computer codes. Thacker points out the internal tension in the very
concept of biotechnology: the products are more "tech" than "bio," but the
technology itself is fully biological, composed of the biomaterial labor
of genes, proteins, cells, and tissues. Is biotechnology a technology at
all, he asks, or is it a notion of "life itself" that is inseparable from
its use in the biotech industry?
The three sections of the book cover the three primary activities of
biotechnology today: the encoding of biological materials into digital
form -- as in bioinformatics and genomics; its recoding in various ways --
including the "biocolonialism" of mapping genetically isolated ethnic
populations and the newly pervasive concern over "biological security";
and its decoding back into biological materiality -- as in tissue
engineering and regenerative medicine. Thacker moves easily from science
to philosophy to political economics, enlivening his account with ideas
from such thinkers as Georges Bataille, Georges Canguilhem, Michel
Foucault, Antonio Negri, and Paul Virilio. The "global genome," says
Thacker, makes it impossible to consider biotechnology without the context
Eugene Thacker is Assistant Professor in the School of Literature,
Communication, and Culture at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Reviews: "The book ambitiously tries to follow the ever-expanding ripples
the genetic code is propaganding in the pond of civilization.... Thacker's
is an interesting mind that wanders in and explores many directions. The
Global Genome is a book likely to trigger very different thoughts,
associations, and reactions from each reader." -- Science
Endorsements: "Eugene Thacker has written an indispensable overview of
current trends and developments in the technosphere of the life sciences,
changes that are having a tremendous, though often latent, impact on
everyday life on a global scale. What separates Thacker's work from other
similar attempts is his brilliant critical framing of the issues, as well
as his unrelenting grounding of life science and its attendant
technologies within the larger field of political economy. This volume is
a powerful interdisciplinary work, in the most authentic sense of the
term." --Steven Kurtz, State University of New York at Buffalo, Member,
Critical Art Ensemble
"An analytical and theoretical tour de force. The Global Genome is that
rare thing: a book that combines a confident knowledge of biotechnology
with a sharp eye for theory, with pyrotechnic results. Thacker maps a
biopolitical economy of recombinant capital, biomaterial labor,
technologies, biowar, and colonialism, a construct that wreaks havoc on
our understanding of what a body is, what it can do, and what it can be
made to do in the age of biotechnology. An eye-opener for the non-expert,
and an essential contribution for researchers and students." --Tiziana
Terranova, Department of Sociology, University at Essex
Zambian Government Acts to Speed Up Maize Importation
- IRIN, Dec 13, 2005 http://www.alertnet.org
Lusaka - Zambia's agriculture minister, Mundia Sikatana, says the
government has decided to waive a requirement that scientists check
whether duty-free maize imported from South Africa has been genetically
modified in order to speed up shipments.
This follows complaints by the Millers Association of Zambia (MAZ) and the
Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) that the requirement to test for GM
organisms had delayed maize imports meant to avert hunger. The maize crop
failed in the most recent drought and up to 1.7 million Zambians are now
threatened by hunger, forcing President Levy Mwanawasa to declare a
national disaster and appeal for international relief.
"There is no problem now - everything is smooth and stocks will start
rolling in as soon as possible," Sikatana told IRIN, "the scientific check
the millers complained about has been removed."
ZNFU complained that the "red tape" had delayed the arrival of maize
stocks in the country, on top of delays at the borders, and appealed for
the waiver of a 15 percent duty on imported maize to be extended beyond 31
"So far, only 7,000 mt of maize has arrived in the country, out of the
required - or authorised - 200,000 mt, and this is a matter of concern to
us. Also, other countries, such as Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of
Congo (DRC), ordered maize from South Africa before Zambia [did],"
Songowayo Zyambo, executive director of the ZNFU, told IRIN.
Zyambo also expressed concern that if maize imports from South Africa were
delayed any further it would disturb next year's maize marketing period
and distort the markets. "We don't want a situation where duty-free or
subsidised maize starts competing with local maize," he explained.
The British government responded on 9 December to Mwanawasa's declaration
of a national food disaster by giving Zambia a US $6.9 million grant to
buy relief food for vulnerable groups. Initially the government was
reluctant to admit that Zambia was facing a critical food shortage and
said the country had stocks of cassava and potatoes that could replace
maize, the staple food.
Zambia last experienced a critical food shortage in 2002, when drought and
floods affected different parts of the country, leaving up to three
million Zambians in need of relief food.
Serious Concern About Food Situation in Southern Africa
- FAO of UN (Rome), Dec. 13, 2005.
'Nearly 12 Million People Are in Need of Assistance - FAO Publishes New
Food insecurity in southern Africa is of serious concern despite a bumper
maize harvest in South Africa, according to the new Africa report
published by FAO today. Nearly 12 million people, mainly in Zimbabwe and
Malawi, are in need of emergency food assistance.
However, South Africa has harvested a record maize crop of 12.4 million
tonnes, estimated to result in a potential export surplus of about 4.66
million tonnes, more than enough to cover the sub-region's import
In Zimbabwe, shortages of key farm inputs such as seeds, fertilizer and
draft power are reported. Normally Zimbabwe requires about 50 000 tonnes
of maize seed. Only half of this is currently estimated to be available
locally. Fertilizer companies estimate that this year about 75 percent of
last year's much reduced amount of fertilizer may be available at much
Access to food in many areas is severely hampered by scarcity of grain on
the market and high inflation, coupled with fuel and transport problems
which are exacerbating food insecurity. Between June and October this year
the average maize price increased from about Z$2000 to about Z$8000 per
kilogram. An estimated three million people will receive monthly rations
of cereals and pulses from the World Food Programme.
In Malawi, food insecurity is worsening throughout the country as maize
prices continue to rise. So far, commercial imports and food aid
deliveries have been meagre in spite of the significant amounts pledged by
In eastern Africa, the 2005 harvest is generally better than last year and
food availability is expected to improve in most countries of the
sub-region. The overall food situation, however, remains precarious with
high malnutrition rates reported in several countries arising from effects
of war, displacement and past droughts.
In Somalia, the overall food security situation continues to be of concern
with more than 900 000 people in need of urgent assistance. The situation
is further aggravated by upsurges in hostilities in parts of southern
Somalia and deteriorating security conditions that are hampering the
distribution of relief assistance.
The food situation in Sudan is also alarming due to continued conflict and
population displacement that have resulted in serious food insecurity,
especially in Darfur and Southern Sudan. In Eritrea, despite a higher crop
production, about 1.4 million people are in need of food assistance.
In Ethiopia, crop prospects are favourable in the main producing regions.
But household food availability is poor and high malnutrition rates,
particularly for children, are of serious concern in some areas. The
number of people in need of emergency food assistance is estimated at 3.8
Good harvests are expected in the Sahel, following generally favourable
weather conditions throughout the growing season. However, the severe food
crisis that hit the sub-region in 2004/05 had serious income, livelihoods
and nutrition effects and resulted in depletion of household assets
including loss of animals, as well as high levels of indebtedness, notably
in Niger and parts of Burkina Faso, Mali and Mauritania. In Côte d'Ivoire,
insecurity and the de facto partition of the country continue to disrupt
agricultural production and marketing activities.
In Central Africa, crop prospects and food security outlook are
unfavourable in several countries due mainly to civil strife and
insecurity. Burundi has warned that a serious food crisis is looming in
the northern and eastern provinces due to the unfavourable prospects for
the 2006 first harvest. Cereal import requirements in sub-Saharan Africa
in 2005/06 are expected to remain high, the report said. Total food aid
requirement in 2004/05 is estimated at about 3.3 million tonnes similar to
Famines, Fallacies and Free Markets
- Thompson Ayodele, Business Day (Johannesburg) GUEST COLUMN, December 7,
The gory details of famine in Niger are making headlines again, with
pictures of old and young scavenging for food. This second-poorest country
in the world suffers from drought and locusts, but also from heavy state
intervention; half its income comes from international aid. But instead of
finding solutions to the production shortage, many in the aid industry
attribute the famine to the government's lame market reforms.
In fact, Niger is a victim of its own government. Early this year, the
government refused to heed warnings that a food crisis was imminent. When
the crisis arrived, it denied there was mass starvation and claimed the
harvest had in fact produced a surplus. The government later proceeded to
accuse the World Food Programme of exaggerating fears that Niger could
face another famine within months. Now, a few months later, at least
2.5-million people are short of food.
In many respects Niger is still a command economy: it is up to the rulers
in Niamey to decide prices. But economic sense, let alone common sense,
dictates that when producers, particularly farmers, can sell to willing
buyers at a mutually agreed price, then it gives them an incentive to
produce more. This in turn enables producers to afford basic necessities
instead of waiting for the government to provide them.
In a command economy, growth remains elusive. Take for instance the great
famines of the 20th century -- in China (25- to 40-million deaths), S!
oviet Ukraine (7- to 10-million), North Korea (2- to 3-million) and
Ethiopia (nearly a million) -- it was food requisitioning and economic
control by communist governments that destroyed incentives to produce.
When countries free their markets, they cut undernourishment down and
abolish famine, as in east and south Asia in the past three decades.
But Niger's agricultural sector is still government-run and still involves
mainly subsistence farming. This does not encourage quick responses to
changing conditions or bad harvests. The locusts in power are well fed so
there is a tendency to pretend that all is well without bothering about
the starvation their policies cause.
The crisis is further compounded by regional trade barriers. World Bank
figures show that African nations slam tariffs! as high as 33,6% on
agricultural commodities from their neighbours.
Some groups have blamed Niger's famine on its alleged "free market"
policies. In fact, Niger has one of the least free economies in the world,
ranking 107th out of 123 countries in the Fraser Institute's report on
economic freedom in the world last year. A few government-owned companies
have been privatised and some financial services liberalised, but these
have had little impact on the majority of Nigeriens. Crucially, farmers
lack secure rights to the land they till, which means they have little
incentive or ability to improve productivity.
Meanwhile, entrepreneurs face government regulations and restrictions at
every turn: for example, the cost of setting up a company is equivalent to
about four years' average income.! These problems are compounded by
inflexible labour laws, which discourage people taking on employees and so
prevent the development of larger-scale businesses. No wonder there is so
People are starving in Niger -- and in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and
elsewhere in Africa -- but not because of free markets. Rather, they are
starving because of the lack of markets and their underlying institutions:
property rights, the rule of law and limited government.
More aid won't solve these problems -- so far it has perpetuated poverty,
corrupt politicians and malign policies. But next week ministers from
around the world will meet in Hong Kong to discuss trade reform. There,
rich countries should lead by example, committing themselves to
liberalising trade and reducing subsidies -- then maybe political leaders
in Africa will follow suit.
Ayodele is director of the Institute of Public Policy Analysis in Lagos,