WASHINGTON - As the transatlantic dispute over the future of genetically modified (GM) food heats up, African activists say it is time to publicly challenge the image that the Bush administration is presenting on the issue.
Washington, they say, is not entitled to speak on behalf of African states on the matter.
”How can one country decide for another country without taking into account the opinion of the other country's people?” Amadou C. Kanoute, regional director of the African office of Consumers International said at a conference here Tuesday organized by Public Citizen.
”Genetic Engineering (GE) will not solve the problem of hunger,” he added.
In filing a formal complaint last month with the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the European Union (EU) for banning GM products, U.S. officials said they were protecting the interests of Africans suffering from hunger, who could be fed with GM food.
But the real reason for their claim is the oversupply of GM crops and the fact that the United States grows two-thirds of the world's GM crops, and views Africa as a potential market for them, said Kanoute.
Instead of alleviating hunger, he added, GM crops pose potential dangers--a view that is also supported by a number of other African activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
GM opponents fear that the technology, which manipulates the genetic code of the seed to give it desired characteristics--such as faster growing times or resistance to pests--will destroy the model of production and consumption that sustains more than 70 percent of the farmers in Africa. GM technology, they say, promotes monoculture and seeks to eliminate all possible competition from non-GM crops.
According to Public Citizen, African countries on their own sought global regulations on GM products, not, as the administration stated, under pressure from European countries.
”The Bush administration is not straightforward. It is not poverty in Africa that is the most important issue for the administration but business considerations on behalf of the U.S. technology and agricultural sector,” Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's global trade watch said Tuesday.
”We do not believe that agro-companies or gene technologies will help our farmers to produce the food that is needed in the 21st century,'' said the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference in a statement. ''On the contrary, we think it will destroy the diversity, the local knowledge and the sustainable agricultural systems that our farmers have developed for millennia and that it will thus undermine our capacity to feed ourselves.”
The issue will make headlines again next week when ministers of trade, agriculture and environment from 180 nations are expected to meet in California, at a summit hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department.
Critics predict the Bush administration and multi-national agri-businesses will use the summit to press African governments for rapid adoption of GM technology.
Controversy over GM crops arose in 2000 and spiked in 2002 when several South African countries refused GM food aid during a food crisis. Faced with a situation where many people could starve, several countries--including Mozambique and Zimbabwe--accepted only milled GM corn, to prevent the use of GMOs (GM organisms) as seeds.
Only Zambia, citing health concerns, rejected GM corn in both grain and milled forms. One year later, President Levy Mwanawasa announced last week that this year Zambia will nearly double the 600,000 tons of grain it harvested last season, providing new fuel to the argument that GM technology is not necessary for reducing hunger in Africa.
Some 35 countries, including EU member states, Australia, Japan, China, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, accounting for up to one-half of the world's population, now refuse to use GM technology.
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