| Posted July 14, 2005:
This year, following scanty and erratic rainfall, many of Zambia's
maize fields have had the life scorched out of them. In some
provinces the severity of the drought may mean a crop failure
of 100 percent. With maize reserves falling short of the country's
requirement, the Zambian government has banned the export of
maize meal to neighbouring countries in a bid to forestall the
looming food deficit.
|| For the genetically modified foods
lobby, tragedy spells opportunity, with drought and crop
failure providing the perfect platform to pressure the
Zambian government over its resistance to genetically
This crisis is reminiscent of the crises Zambia faced in
2000 and 2002. It's not only the threat of hunger, though,
that's reviving painful memories; it's also the way in which
that threat is being exploited. For the genetically modified
foods lobby, tragedy spells opportunity, with drought and
crop failure providing the perfect platform to pressure the
Zambian government over its resistance to genetically modified
So far, instead of going down the GM route, Zambia has been
looking to alternatives to feed its population. Three years
ago, when that strategy was first adopted, it led to Colin
Powell's denunciation of Zambia at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg.
And Powell's attack was just one element in a virulent US/industry
campaign of pressure and dissimulation that continues to this
The backdrop in 2002 was crop failure across much of southern
Africa. Famine was said to be looming in Zambia, Zimbabwe,
Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho and Angola. The US
had responded by offering as relief its surplus GM maize,
but several countries including Zambia had rejected it.
Eventually, all but Zambia were pressured into accepting
the GM grain, at least in a milled form which prevented replanting.
But the Zambian President, Levy Mwanawasa, would only make
his final decision after a team of Zambian scientists and
economists completed a fact-finding tour of laboratories and
regulatory offices in South Africa, Europe and the US. Their
report concluded that studies on the safety of GM foods were
inconclusive, and that the GM maize should be rejected as
a precautionary measure.
From the start, the US responded forcefully. "Eat GM
or starve, America tells Africa," ran one Reuters headline.
"Beggars can't be choosers," an unnamed state department
official told the Washington Post. When the Zambians replied
that even beggars shouldn't be denied the dignity of self-determination,
the Americans accused them of risking a "human catastrophe".
Despite US intransigence, alternative food supplies were
found and starvation was averted, as President Mwanawasa noted
when addressing a public rally in Zambia's Copperbelt recently.
"In 2002, there was hunger in the country and [the] government
had rejected GMO maize from donors who predicted that a considerable
number of people would die of hunger, but this did not happen".
America's use of potential starvation as a bargaining chip
shocked many, particularly when--as ActionAid's Emergencies
Programme Adviser, Donald Mavunduse pointed out--African governments
and civil society organizations had raised legitimate concerns
about GM. "They worry about its safety for health and
the environment, how it is controlled and by whom, and about
the impact of GM on the future livelihoods of their citizens,"
said Mavunduse. "These concerns should be addressed,
not ridden over roughshod."
Even among British government ministers and advisors, there
seemed a palpable unease at what was happening. According
to The Observer newspaper, Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser
denounced the United States' attempts to force the technology
into Africa as a "massive human experiment". The
paper reported that, "In a scathing attack on President
Bush's administration, Professor David King also questioned
the morality of the US's desire to flood genetically modified
foods into African countries, where people are already facing
starvation in the coming months."
But for the GM lobby, the failure to offload GM food even
onto a country wracked by hunger made for a humiliating global
spectacle, and they weren't about to back off. The tone had
been set at the Earth Summit when Andrew Natsios, the head
of USAID, had gone after the organizations opposing GM. "The
Bush administration," Natsios warned, "is not going
to sit there and let these groups kill millions of poor people
in southern Africa through their ideological campaign".
Also on the US hit list were Zambia's leaders. The US Ambassador
to the UN Food and Agriculture Agencies, Tony Hall, called
for African leaders who had refused US food aid to be tried
"for the highest crimes against humanity in the highest
courts of the world." The US Trade Representative, Robert
Zoellick had the European Union firmly in his sights. Zoellick
linked Zambia's refusal of GM grain to sanctions he claimed
the EU had threatened. The EU's Trade Commissioner, Pascal
Lamy, described this claim as "very simply immoral".
|"Europe's policy is to provide
food aid procured in the region, rather than as a means
of disposing of domestic stocks... The simple solution
is for the US to behave as a real aid donor."
"Zambia is a sovereign country and makes its own decisions,"
Lamy said in an interview with Newsweek. "Zambians do
not need to be heroic to assert their sovereignty. GM-free
supplies are available in surplus in southern Africa. Europe's
policy is to provide food aid procured in the region, rather
than as a means of disposing of domestic stocks... The simple
solution is for the US to behave as a real aid donor."
The EU's Development Commissioner, Poul Nielson, also waded
in, describing the claim that the EU had threatened the Zambians
as "a very negative lie." He told reporters that
he wanted to propose a deal to the Americans: "The deal
would be this: if the Americans would stop lying about us,
we would stop telling the truth about them."
The reason for Zoellick's targeting of the EU became clearer
a few months later when the US Trade Representative announced
plans to sue the EU at the World Trade Organisation unless
it opened up its markets to American GM products. The WTO
case was filed in the name of Africa.
Around this time I was forwarded an email that had been sent
to a leading environmental campaigner, demanding that he spell
out his position on Zambia. The sender of the email was one
"Max Russell-Bennett," ostensibly a private citizen,
and he attached to his email a press release from the pro-GM
lobby group AgBioWorld. The press release seemed to imply
that a few years earlier thousands had died in the Indian
state of Orissa--victims of resistance to GM food aid. AgBioWorld
urged "activists" not to repeat "the mistakes
In reality, the deaths in Orissa had been due to a devastating
cyclone, and no one had died for want of GM food. And a check
on the email's technical headers revealed it had originated
not with a private individual but with Monsanto Belgium. This
message, crafted by a multinational corporation in the guise
of a fake citizen, with its deceptive history attached, seemed
to capture the cynical mendacity that has marked the industry's
Just why the biotech industry was prepared to go to such
lengths can be seen from the comments of Berndt Halling of
the Brussels-based lobby group, EuropaBio. Halling told a
reporter that "the green lobby" had over-reached
itself and the food-aid crisis in Africa provided "the
first issue that has the ability to destroy their credibility."
Halling went on, "I want to know if they are going to
accept responsibility for the people that will die as a result
of the refusal of GM aid."
As with the EU, stories began to circulate about how environmentalists
had blackmailed Zambia into rejecting GM food aid. The syndicated-columnist,
Paul Driessen painted them as co-conspirators, "environmental
radicals and the European Union are screaming ‘genetic
pollution' and threatening to withdraw aid and ban agricultural
exports from any countries that plant or distribute the [GM]
grains." In a speech Driessen added, "Radical Greens
spread rumours that the corn was poisonous, and might cause
cancer, or even AIDS. So it got locked up in warehouses, while
Starving children and dead Africans were necessary collateral
for the Zambia campaign, so Roger Bate, a Fellow at the American
Enterprise Institute, helpfully put a number on the death
toll. Bate told his readers that aid workers in Zambia had
had to take "food away from the mouths of starving children"
and that "perhaps as many as 20,000 Zambians died as
a result." Others went still further, claiming that "millions"
of Zambians had been "left to starve".
The marketing of this heinous crime continues unabated. In
early 2005, the former Head of Regulatory Affairs at Syngenta,
Willy DeGreef, spoke of the need to identify those responsible
for the "outrage" and "tragedy" of having
"children starve" rather than eat "genetically
enhanced foods": "How did we get that far; who was
responsible for whispering (those) messages to those policy
makers... That is something that I would rather sooner or
later want to find out, because you're talking about literally
crimes against humanity."
Even in a world awash with spin and disinformation, constructing
a deceitful public relations campaign out of starving children
seems peculiarly distasteful. Yet DeGreef's comments merely
served as a springboard for Alex Avery, of the biotech-industry-backed
Hudson Institute, to go a step further and actually name those
that had the "blood of the starvation victims" on
|| "To a large extent, this ‘crisis'
has been manufactured (might I say, ‘engineered')
by those looking for a new source of traction in the evolving
global debate over agricultural biotechnology."
At the top of Avery's list was Dr Charles Benbrook, a former
Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture for the US
National Academy of Sciences. Benbrook's crime had been to
tell the Zambian scientists during their fact-finding mission
that there was no shortage of non-GM foods which could be
offered to Zambia and that, "To a large extent, this
‘crisis' has been manufactured (might I say, ‘engineered')
by those looking for a new source of traction in the evolving
global debate over agricultural biotechnology." Dr. Benbrook
added, "To use the needs of Zambians to score ‘political
points' on behalf of biotechnology strikes many as unethical
and indeed shameless."
Another of those with blood on his hands, according to Avery,
was the British campaigner Robert Vint. Vint responded, "the
people you are accusing committed the offence of participating
in a consultation exercise organised by the US and UK Governments
for Zambian scientists. Discussing scientific matters as part
of a dialogue in which opposing views were heard hardly constitutes
murder. The Zambian scientists listening to these various
views were doctors and professors--mainly educated in American
universities. Surely you don't believe that because they were
black they could be easily brainwashed by Westerners? My specific
crime, by the way, was to suggest to the Zambian delegation
that they obtain and review the original safety research on
GM foods. I'm a great supporter of sound science and empirical
research. Oddly, both the US and UK Government representatives
refused to provide this data--or even to confirm its existence.
Maybe you could provide it?"
Clement Chipokolo from Zambia also took issue with Avery,
telling him, "you mentioned that there were several deaths
that resulted from the decision that the government took.
May I put it to you that the only recorded deaths that we
know of were before the GM saga came to the fore... your statements
are typical of a well funded lobbyist who would do what ever
it takes to achieve his mission, in this case promotion of
He went on, "just on Tuesday our government announced
that the country faces a maize deficit of 300,000 metric tonnes
and has appealed for help. I was wondering what kind of help
would come from your end. Please make sure it is not GM because
it might just go back." Chipokolo ended by adapting a
saying from the Book of Joshua, "Know today what you
are going to eat, as for me and my country we shall eat no