On Eve of USDA Sacramento Biotech Ministerial, African Voices Counter Bush Claims About GMOs and African Hunger

5 April, 2003

WASHINGTON, D.C. - An African hunger expert and a prominent African consumer leader are condemning the Bush administration's challenge at the World Trade Organization (WTO) of European policies on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), saying that GMOs are not the answer to African hunger and noting that Zambia has pulled itself out of a food crisis without accepting GMO food aid.

Backed by enthusiastic support from the biotechnology industry, the Bush administration announced May 13 that it was challenging Europe's policies on genetically modified food and seed. Rather than openly contesting the substance of the European policy, which includes safety testing, traceability and labeling, or focusing on U.S. industry interest in forcing countries to accept GMO foods and seeds, the United States sought to couch the WTO case as a moral crusade to counter hunger in Africa.

Amadou Kanoute, regional director for Consumers International Office for Africa (CI-ROAF) in Zimbabwe, and Dr. Drinah Nyirenda, executive director of the Program Against Malnutrition (PAM) in Zambia, made their remarks at two briefings this week in Washington, D.C., for congressional staffers and reporters. Also at the briefing were Dr. Michael Hansen, a biologist and senior research associate at Consumers Union and Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch.

Both Kanoute and Nyirenda emphasized that there is no longer a food crisis in Zambia, the one and only African country that refused GMO food aid. In the 2002-03 season, Zambia produced 1.1 million tons of white maize, nearly double the 600,000 tons harvested last year, and aims to produce 3 million tons of white maize next year, positioning itself as an exporter of crops.

'The Bush administration has sought to link Europe's food policies with starvation in Africa to justify its WTO case against Europe, which is in fact really about trying to overcome the growing public antipathy to GMOs worldwide and the related disappointment for U.S. industries who gambled on this technology,' said Wallach. 'Given the facts in this situation - that the Bush administration systematically has been fighting African nations' homegrown demands in an array of international negotiations for global GMO regulatory rules - it was vital for African civil society leaders to come to Washington and reveal to press and policy makers the Bush administration's deceit and shamelessness.'

Among points Kanoute and Nyrienda made:

  • Over several years, the United States sought to undermine initiatives by African governments to create a UN-backed multilateral treaty, the Cartegna Biosafety Protocol, which specifies steps nations may take in a precautionary approach to regulating GMOs. The U.S. has refused to sign the treaty but 50 other nations have signed, bringing it into force.
  • African government and public opposition to GMOs is based on health and economic realities in Africa. First, GMO commodities are patented, meaning farmers cannot save seeds from each harvest for replanting but must buy new seed annually or pay an annual licensing fee - requirements that will destroy the model of production and consumption that sustain more than 70 percent of African farmers. Also, GMO technology promotes monoculture, thereby threatening biodiversity of plants developed for specific conditions. There are also unknown health effects for Africans consuming GMOs because corn and other grains comprise 70 percent of the caloric intake of average Africans versus just 3 to 4 percent of average U.S. caloric intake.
  • Contrary to Bush administration claims, African countries, including Zimbabwe, were willing to take milled GM food during the food crises but rejected genetically modified whole grains that could be planted as seeds, thus triggering a 'seed servitude' of unsuspecting farmers owing licensing fees for patented seeds. The United States created the crisis in Zambia by forcing unmilled GMOs upon the country.

Wallach and Hansen noted that:

  • The U.S. industry and government made a bad business strategy gamble on GMOs: Today, 35 countries with 3 billion people (half of world's population, including major U.S. trade partners outside of Europe) now require safety approvals, segregation and labeling of GM foods.
  • The U.S. industry is trying to overcome free market choices against GMOs made by countries and consumers by using the force and coercion of a WTO threat - a threat that is real to a poor country aiming to regulate GMOs, given that a WTO legal defense costs approximately $1 million.

The Washington briefings came on the eve of a large meeting of the world's agricultural ministers in Sacramento on June 23 and 24, and a large biotech industry conference in Washington D.C. on the same days.

Note to Reporters: Kanoute and Nyirenda will be in Washington, D.C., through Thursday, June 19, and will be in Sacramento through next week.

Amadou Kanoute is regional director for Consumers International Office (CI-ROAF). Based in Zimbabwe, the organization represents African consumer groups that support African nations that worked their way out of food security crisis by not relying on GM products. 'Images of warehouses full of grain but unable to get to the people are simply false. Most African countries agreed to take the grain if it was milled,' said Mr. Kanoute.

Dr. Drinah Nyirenda is the executive director of the Program Against Malnutrition (PAM) in Zambia. In the debate over genetically engineered food aid that began in Zambia last summer, Dr. Nyirenda was a leader in calling for the use of local, traditional foods existing in Zambia as the frontline of the fight against hunger in her country. Her organization respects the position of the Zambian government, which rejected the use of engineered food aid in light of uncertainties over potential health and environmental impacts. Zambia's strategy - and avoidance of GMOs - succeeded in handling the food crisis, which the Bush administration repeatedly uses in its claims that rejection of GMO imports led to a hunger crisis.

Both Mr. Kanoute and Dr. Nyirenda can be reached today and Thursday through David Waskow at Friends of the Earth at 202-783-7400, ext. 108, or Chris Slevin at the numbers above. In Sacramento, please contact Larry Bohlen at Friends of the Earth at 202-270-1547 and Michael Hansen at Consumers Union at 917-774-3801.