Tuesday, June 24, 2003

George Bush continues to beat the drum linking the European ban on importing genetically modified foods and famine in Africa. The logic of Bush's argument, however, is difficult if not impossible to follow. Yesterday at the Bio 2003 Convention Center and Exhibition in Washington, the President said laid out the latest iteration of this argument.

First, the President says "we must help troubled nations to avert famine by sharing with them the most advance methods of crop production" which of course means biotech crops. In order to feed themselves, Bush says, Africa needs biotech.

In the very next paragraph, Bush states
Acting on unfounded, unscientific fears, many European governments have blocked the import of all new biotech crops. Because of these artificial obstacles many African nations avoid investing in biotechnology, worried that their products will be shut out of important European markets. For the sake of a continent threatened by famine I urge the European governments to end their opposition to biotechnology.
While the remark won the expected round of applause, the connection between African famine and European GM food policies is unexplained. How exactly is it that African famine will be averted by exporting GM food to Europe?

Let's look at the famine-threatened areas of Africa today.

In Ethiopia, the overwhelmingly dominant crop export is coffee. There is no such thing as GM coffee, Ethiopians can't eat coffee, and thus Bush's comments are irrelevant. The country's response to Bush's comments, in the words of the BBC, has been "lukewarm". If Bush cared about famine in Africa he would seek to revive the International Coffee Organization and boost world coffee prices rather than blab on about something he knows nothing about.

Eritrea is another country facing famine, whose top agricultural exports are sesame seeds, of which there are no GM varieties, and fish. The country is highly dependent on food imports (man cannot live on sesame seeds alone) and has no ability to export food to anywhere, much less to Europe. Again, Bush's comments are irrelevant.

In West Africa, Mauritania faces famine. It exports fish and live animals and to the best of my knowledge there is no GM cattle or camel on the horizon. Mauritanian live animal exports are not fed grain but pasture. Corn costs money after all and pasture is (virtually) free.

In Southern Africa famine stalks four countries in particular: Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi. If Bush's comments have any relevance it is here, where maize is a primary food crop and there has been controversy over genetically modified US food aid.

But let's not get carried away. Malawi's primary agricultural exports by value are tobacco leaf, tea, raw sugar, coffee and cotton seed cakes. Mozambique's are fish, cotton, cashews, sugar and copra. Zambia's are sugar, cotton lint, tobacco leaves, and Zimbabwe primarily exports the same. Of these four countries, only Zimbabwe is a major exporter of a food crop -- maize -- and none have notable export-dependent meat industries which might be kept out of the EU because the animals were fed GM maize.

Famine threatens these four countries due primarily to the fall in maize harvests caused by drought, price spikes, and politics. Planting BT or herbicide resistant corn would not have prevented this shortfall. When the US offered to dump its surplus GM corn on Southern Africa as an act of humanitarian relief, three of the countries agreed to accept the offer if the maize came in milled form. This was to prevent farmers from taking GM maize seeds and planting them in Southern Africa. Why did these governments want to prevent such a thing? Certainly not because of fears of being shut out of European markets as a result! They wanted to do so in order to prevent their future dependence on Western biotech corporations which own the seeds they would be planting.

Clearly Bush's complaint is rooted in a single incident: the refusal of Zimbabwe to import US produced GM corn in any form. Remember that Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique all accepted milled GM maize. Why did Zambia refuse? The President of the country claims the grain is "poison". While the President is not only excessively cautious but downright reckless with the lives of the millions in Zambia who face famine, he has not refused the grain out of trade concerns. What is more important in Zambia's refusal is the role of local politics and the prestige of the President who came out very strongly against GM food imports and cannot backtrack for political reasons.

Again Africa exists for Bush only as a bully club with which to beat the Europeans. Bush doesn't care about famine. He cares about the millions of tons of overproduced GM grain in the United States desperate for an outlet and a future market. This is not about Africans feeding themselves; it is about US grain exports to Africa.

The US House Agriculture Committee issued a report last summer titled "The Facts on US Farm Policy". On the cover is emblazoned a quote from President Bush:
We're a blessed Nation because we can grow our own food and, therefore, we're secure. A nation that can feed its people is a nation more secure.
How sadly ironic that Bush cannot apply to Africa the same values that he applies to his own country.

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