Genetically modified food

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Zambia is currently facing a food crisis that threatens the lives of more than 2 million people. Despite pressure from formidable opponents such as the United States, the Zambian government has said ‘no’ to genetically modified foods. A number of countries in the region such as Zimbabwe, Malawi and Tanzania had taken the same stance but they later reversed the decisions.

Speaking to the Zambian Delegate sent to the United States by President Mwanawasa on a mission to assess the benefits of genetically modified foods (GMFs), Charles Benbrook of the North-West Science and Environmental Policy Centre, urged Zambia and other developing countries to reject GM foods since they pose a number of problems that range from health to environmental. These fears have been expressed by a number of scientists, organisations and also European Union governments.

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Sharma argues that the notion that GM foods will increase world food stocks which in turn ends hunger is based on the wrong assumption that hunger in the world is the product of shortage of food (Sharma 2000:01). This argument is supported by Phillip, ‘If the food that is currently available is to be evenly distributed among the 6. 4 billion people on the planet, there would still be surplus left over to feed 800 million more’ (Phillip in Almas 1999:15). The problem therefore, is not of production but clearly of ‘access and distribution’ (Moseley 1999:24).

Sharma concludes that the problem of countries such as Zambia facing starvation is more of politics rather than shortage. This paper shall attempt to give reasons why poor nations such as Zambia should not accept GM food and then consider possible alternatives. It is important to note that the effects of GM food on individuals and developing nations as a whole are many . In this discussion special attention shall be given to health, environmental, farming systems and socio-economic and political implications of GM food in poor countries. Why Poor Nations should not accept genetically modified food

Genetic foods are the product of genetic engineering that breaks down the fundamental genetic barriers, not only between species, but also between humans, animals and plants(Wertheim 2000:56). As a result these engineered foods are potentially toxic and can cause allergic reactions in humans. In fact genetically modified foods have a poor track record for human safety (Letourneau and Burrows 2002:88). Though many scientists claim that the ingestion of genetically modified food is harmless, recent evidence shows that there are potential risks of eating such foods.

The problem of health should be taken into consideration particularly poor countries which have a poor resource base for social services such as health facilities and drugs. Cases of health problems as a result of genetically modified foods have been recorded. For example dozens of Americans died in 1989 and several thousands were afflicted and impaired by a genetically altered version of the food supplement -L-Tryptophan (Wald and Higgins 2003:04). A settlement of $2 billion dollars was paid by Showa Denko,Japan’s third largest chemical company.

Commenting on this move, Mayeno and Gleich noted that it would be very impossible for victims of a developing country to be compensated, let alone the issue be made public (Mayeno and Gleich in Antoniou 1999:113). Most of the diseases linked to genetically modified foods are complex and the poor countries cannot deal with them. Diseases such as cancer, considering the high amount of investment which is required to tackle them, can become even more dangerous than Malaria, or Cholera.

In poor countries the problem is made worse by the fact that there is no existing legislation and apparatuses to deal with the problems which might be created by genetically modified food’s threat to health. For example today in countries such as Zambia genetically modified foods are treated in the same manner as natural foods; they cannot be safety tested; they cannot carry labels showing that they have been genetically modified, nor can the governments keep record of the genetically modified foods(Letourneau 2002:64).

The import of genetically modified foods will be, ‘a fatal trial and error method of trying to discover the health effects of GM food on the peoples’ health’ (Wertheim 2000:61). In the absence and poor enforcement of legislation regulating environmental management in developing countries the GM foods will exacerbate the ecological problems already existing in these countries(Lambrecht 2001:123). The fear which has been raised by a number of developing countries is that once imported there is always a possibility that the seeds might be planted causing environmental problems.

As Wertheim noted, ‘Genetic pollution, unlike spills, cannot be controlled by throwing a boom around it, and thus its effects are non retrievable and maybe permanent, therefore the expansion of these foods to developing countries maybe unwise and undesirable’ (Wertheim 2000:64). Although the ecological risks issue received some discussion in government ,international and scientific circles ,discussions have often been pursed from a narrow perspective that has downplayed the seriousness of the risks(Kendal 1997:98).

In fact the methods of environmental risk assessment of GM foods in the North are not well developed and are virtually non-existent in the poor countries. Mycogen has noted, those foods that have been banned in the North for being environmental hazard have always found themselves in the developing countries( Mycogen in Juanillo 2001:76). Forcing developing countries to accept GM foods is an international pressure meant to gain markets and profits with little consideration of the long-term impacts on the people or the ecosystem.

There is always the potential that the GM foods being offered to countries such as Zambia, for example maize, can be planted resulting in cross pollination with local varieties. Besides causing environmental problems as noted above, this can also result in the destruction of agricultural diversity of many of these countries. Developing countries such as Southern African countries are the centre of diversity for such crops such as maize and contamination could have serious consequences(Rosset 2000:17). Crops such as maize have been grown all over Africa since the colonial times.

It was readily adopted by local farming communities because it grew rapidly and its cultivation was undemanding. Some 54% of maize planted in Africa is still planted to local varieties. Over the several hundred years that maize has been grown in Africa, an impressive diversity has been created by farmers all over the continent. By accepting the GM foods the governments of developing will be showing little concern about the threat of contaminating local varities. Planting of maize can lead to the contamination of GM genes into local maize varieties.

This is exactly what happened in Mexico; the maize that has contaminated local varieties entered the country as food aid. The accepting of GM food will also destroy the livelihood of the poor people in developing countries (Britt and Mark 2002:101). Western based agro-companies will take over the power away from small farmers. This will mean that poor countries will now have to buy food from transnational corporation farms in order to feed their poor. Madagasca, Reunion and the Comoros, countries which have been accepting GM foods now rely on importing food since the livelihoods of their small farmers have been destroyed.

Genetically modified foods also have socio-economic and political implications in poor countries. The monopolisation of food production means that poor countries such as Zambia would become dependent on the decisions of a few companies in the North (Antoniou 2000:63). Food is an important commodity . By importing GM food poor nations of Africa will end up being dependent on the North for the supply of food products. ‘This will mean a shift of political power from governments of Zambia and other developing countries to the Department of Agriculture in the US or US Aid'(Almas 1999:19).

The gap between the poor nations and the rich will be widened as developing countries due to their dependency on GM foods will now have to use up to 80% of their little income to import food from developed nations. Rosset argues that GM foods do not end food insecurity in developing countries because there is no relationship between the prevalence of hunger in a given country and its population (Rosset 2000:55). ‘For every densely populated and hungry nation like Bangladesh or Haiti, there is a sparsely populated and hungry nation like Brazil or Indonesia’ (Altieri 2003:01).

The world today produces more food per inhabitant than ever before. The real causes of hunger are poverty, inequality and lack of access. Too many people are too poor to purchase the food that is available. Even if the governments of poor countries are given the GM food their populations will continue to be hungry as along as they do not have the income to purchase the food. As Sharma bluntly expressed it, the problem therefore, ‘is not distribution but clearly of access and distribution. It involves more politics than GM food, with GM food having virtually no role to play’ (Sharma 2003:04).

Much of the food stocks are lying in the open in want of adequate storage space, in countries such as India where about a third of the world’s hungry population live. The Indian government every year, for example, exports food while 250million people are starving. If the GM foods are competent to address the problems of over production and lack of distribution then poor governments should accept them, but that is not the case (Rosset 2000:78). The import of GM foods is not the solution of persistent hunger in poor countries but an effort by a group of corporate interests to dominate the world food markets.

As Wertheim pointed out importation of the GM food is a cosmetic measure that would not eradicate hunger in poor countries (Wertheim 2000:67). Because of the high costs of production of GM foods, the price of food will continue to rise and the poor cannot keep pace due to increasing level of poverty in their countries. GM foods are meant primarily to benefit the multinational corporations that sell the foods and the accompanied seeds and are more often interested in their own bottom line than feeding the poor nations such as Zambia.

This is shown by the fact that the big corporate companies are not working on the crops of the poor such as cassava, millets, sorghum, sweet potatoes, yams and legumes (Rosset 2000:11). Furthermore these companies are not giving their technology to poor countries because they want to recover their costs showing that they have limited if they have at all interest in the poor. Agricultural innovations such as GM foods are profit driven rather than need driven. ‘The real thrust of GM foods is not to make Third World countries hunger ridden, but rather generate profit’ (Lambrecht 2001:87).

By destroying agriculture in the poor countries and then forcing them to buy inflated prices for their GM foods, companies are determined to extract the most profit from their investments(Kirmsky and Wrubel 1996:78). Opponents of GM food also criticize food aid to drought stricken Africa such as Ethiopia, as a conspiracy between the US government and the World Food Programme to ,’dump unsafe, American genetically modified crops into one remaining unquestioning market , Africa'(Leisinger 2002:16) Alternatives

Letourneau (2002:97) argues that though it may not be easy and may be expensive in the short term, there are many other ways to feed the hungry. One of them is to import food from countries which do not grow genetically modified foods such as India. India today has 65million tonnes of non-GM food grain and this can be used as a good source for countries such as Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique (2003:05). Sharma also suggests that countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa have plenty of non GM food which can be exported to famine stricken Southern African countries.

As Jean Ziegler, the UN special investigator on the right to food has said, ‘There is plenty of natural, normal good food in the world to nourish the double of humanity’ The fact that there is a lot of food in the market means that there should be provision of cash, not food, so that WFP and the governments of Africa can source food. This will support agriculture in the region as a whole, which is one important step towards long-term food security for African farmers.

The plan would also include helping countries address some of the economic pressures they face, include measures to rebuild local food security that recognises the complexity of the farming strategies required to sustain farming communities in the region (Britt and Marck 2002:54). And that would means keeping GM crops out of the farmers’ fields. The answer to the problems of the poor, according to a number of organisations that oppose genetically modified crops is more organic, regenerative agriculture.

This type of agriculture will result in the reduction of the wear and tear on the environment and redress the poisoning of soil and undergroundwater. GM foods ‘have no place in the organic farmer’s tool kit'(Kendall 1997:79). The food produced by this relatively cheap method of farming is also cheap. There is also need to increase the agricultural land which is being cultivated instead of increasing yields through genetic engineering on a small farm plot (Juanillo 2001:14). Today most of the food is produced in the United States, European Union and Australia.

The movement of food from these countries to poor countries such as Zambia is expensive in terms of transport and foreign currency. The main point is that to ensure food security in Africa, food should be produced locally so that people with low purchasing power, most of who live in rural areas, can earn more from agricultural production. Also the role of food production in rural districts as the main source of income not only for the farmers but also for those who live in the surrounding communities (Pinstrup-Andersen 2001:45).

Food insecurity in most developing countries is not a result of unemployment, low income and a weak welfare system, but also springs from the failure to recognize and to implement the human right to food (Graham 1999:207). Studies of hunger in the past have ignored the failure of social policies to include the right to food as a fundamental need in a food insecure society. The concept of human right to food should be ratified in domestic and international agreements and developing countries should struggle to implement policies that protect food supply.

Because food is both a personal and intimate commodity, it must be treated as in health, economic and social welfare policies’ (Graham 1999:211). The poor farmers in developing countries should be given access to land, food markets should be strengthened and the infrastructure for the poor farmers should also be improved (Pinstrup -Andersen 2001:164). The current system is designed to favour large-scale, private operations that can compete to secure markets. Conclusion Genetically modified foods have become an issue of growing importance particularly in developing countries.

As it has been illustrated above the primary difficulty of this new kind of food is the risks that it poses . These include risks to the individuals, risks to the agricultural industry or risks to the environment. Societal actors are therefore divided over how to proceed. Politicians in poor nations such as Zambia are entering areas where they must set regulatory guidelines that ban the GM food products in a nation that is starving. This is not acceptable to the Northern countries such as the United States. As has been seen above there are a number of alternatives to GM crops.

Hunger and food insecurity in poor countries, as noted is not a product of food shortage but little political will. Most importantly effective distribution and an efficient food market in the Third World will go a long way in alleviating the problems of hunger. More research has to be done on the potential risks of GM foods and how they can be reduced if the multinational corporations are to succeed in persuading the poor nations to accept their products. Also for successful integration, the biotechnology industry will rely on a careful balance between the potential of economic benefits to the poor nations and also the rich nations.

As long as GM foods are viewed as having the potential to divide the world into potential winners and losers it will be difficult to persuade the poor nations to integrate the technology. If the above issues are not addressed, ‘the GM foods will take us down a dangerous path, creating the classic conditions for hunger, poverty and even famine’ (Letourneau 2002:62). Also Kendall concluded that, ‘the GM foods are irrelevant to ending hunger and in fact are likely to increase poverty’ (Kendall 1997:78).