Richard Moore

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From: "Nurev Ind" <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Capitalism at work: FAMINE AS COMMERCE
Date: Tue, 3 Sep 2002 08:41:20 -0400


Agriculture issues Homepage  August 2002
by Devinder Sharma

Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Among
his recent works include two books GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In
the Famine Trap


The foisting of genetically engineered food on the famine-stricken nations
of Africa is morally repugnant, says Devinder Sharma August 2002 :

Some years back, a keynote speaker at the International Famine Centre at
Cork, Ireland, detailed how maize was loaded on ships bound for Britain at
the height of the great Irish potato famine that killed some 1.5 million
people more than 150 years ago. He paused and then lamented: "I wonder
what kind of people lived at that time who were not even remotely offended
at the sight of millions dying of hunger in the same village where the
ships were being loaded."

A hundred years later, the same class of people were largely responsible
for the great Bengal Famine in 1943, in which an estimated 1.5 million to
3 million people perished. As Nobel laureate Amartya Sen explains in his
now well-known theory of entitlements, the Bengal famine was not the
result of a drastic slump in food production but because the colonial
masters had diverted food for other commercial purposes. And if you are
wondering whether the same evil class of the elite decision-makers has
perished with the collapse of the erstwhile colonies, hold your breath.

In the last 60 years or so, following the great human tragedy of the
Bengal famine, food aid was conveniently used as a political weapon. But
what is arguably one of the most blatantly anti-humanitarian acts, seen as
morally repugnant, is the decision of the United States Agency for
International Development (USAID) to offer US $50 million in food aid to
famine-stricken Zimbabwe provided that it is used to purchase genetically
modified maize. Food aid therefore is no longer an instrument of foreign
policy. It has now become a major commercial activity, even if it means
exploiting the famine victims and starving millions.

That is the official line at the USAID about the corn it has offered to
Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and Malawi, where an estimated 13
million people face severe hunger and possibly live under the spectre of
an impending famine after two years of drought and floods.

For the genetically modified food industry, reeling under a growing
rejection of its untested and harmful food products, there is money in
hunger, starvation and death. Spearheaded by USAID, the industry has made
it abundantly clear that it has only genetically modified maize to offer
and was not willing to segregate. The WFP, which over the past few decades
has for all practical purposes become an extension of USAID, was quick to
put its rubber stamp.

It had earlier helped the United States to reduce its grain surpluses by
taking the genetically modified food for a mid-day meal programme for
school children in Africa. President Mugabe may not be able to hold for
long. He had earlier told Zimbabwe's Parliament on July 23: " We fight the
present drought with our eyes clearly set on the future of the
agricultural sector, which is the mainstay of our economy. We dare not
endanger its future through misplaced decisions based on acts of either
desperation or expediency."

But then, the biotechnology industry is using all its financial power to
break down the African resistance. Once the GM food is accepted as
humanitarian aid, it will be politically difficult for the African
governments to oppose the corporate take-over of Africa's agricultural

For the industry, Africa provides a huge market.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa too has said that his people would rather
die than eat toxic food. While Malawi says it has no choice but to accept
GM maize, newspaper reports cite Mozambique, from where Malawi's food aid
has to pass through, asking the WFP to cover it with plastic sheeting to
avoid spillage while in transit.

Malawi incidentally is faced with famine after it was forced to sell maize
to earn dollars for debt servicing.

Explains Ann Pettifor of the New Economics Foundation: Just three months
before the food crisis hit, Malawi was encouraged by the World Bank "to
keep foreign exchange instead of storing grain"


Because foreign exchange is needed to repay debts. Creditors will not
accept debt repayments in Malawian Kwachas. Or indeed in bags of maize.

Only "greenbacks" or other hard currencies will do.

One of Malawi's key commercial creditors needed to have their debt repaid,
according to Malawi's president, who in a BBC interview said the
government "had been forced (to sell maize) in order to repay commercial
loans taken out to buy surplus maize in previous years".

President Muluzi said the IMF and the World Bank "insisted that, since
Malawi had a surplus and the (government's) National Food Reserve Agency
had this huge loan, they had to sell the maize to repay the commercial

So Malawi duly sold 28,000 tonnes of maize to Kenya. Under pressure from
her creditors, led by the World Bank and the IMF, Malawi exchanged maize
-- her people's staple diet -- for dollars.

And now, it is getting another loan to purchase genetically modified from
the United States. Sure the USAID has been working overtime to create a
market for its genetically modified food industry !

The debate on biotech food however goes still further. After all, it is
the commercial interest of America's sunrise industry. The biotechnology
industry has always been quick to use agricultural economists and Nobel
laureates as effective 'loudspeakers' to promote the unhealthy food on
gullible populations.

One of its most distinguished spokesperson, Dr Per Pinstrup-Andersen,
former director general of the Washington-based International Food Policy
Research Institute, said that Zimbabwe was using the food to play
politics. Referring to President Mugabe's recent land-reform policies, he
added: "I think it is irresponsible . Unless they know they can get enough
food from elsewhere that is not genetically modified."

And how much quantity of grain is required to tide over the food crisis in
central and southern Africa?

A million tonne, is all that the WFP estimates. Surprising that the WFP as
well as Pinstrup-Andersen are not aware of any other source of getting
non-GM foodgrains for millions of hungry Africans.

Ironically, the country which is laden with overflowing grain silos and an
unmanageable grain reserves is the one to have come to the rescue of a
famine-stricken Ireland in the nineteenth century.

The first shipload of grain that came for the starving Irish was from
India. And more recently, India had provided food on 'humanitarian' basis
to the war-torn Iraqis'.

And soon after Bin Laden and his associates were forced out, India had
stepped in to fight immediate hunger in Afghanistan early this year.
Earlier too, India had come to the rescue of Ethiopia at the height of the
Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s.

With 65 million tonnes foodgrains stockpiled in the open, and that too of
non genetically modified grain, WFP will do well to purchase instead from
India. With the grain from the reserves priced at Rs 4 to Rs 5 a kg (less
than 10 American cents a kilo), the WFP will not find cheaper food
available anywhere.

But this will not happen, in other words will not be allowed to happen.

After all, the impending famine in Africa opens up a new market to sustain
the multi-billion dollar US biotechnology industry. What happens in the
bargain to the resulting crisis in human health and misery, and
environment contamination from GMOs is none of the concern of the American
grain merchants.

In fact, it never was.

At the height of the 1974 famine in the newly born Bangladesh, the US had
withheld 2.2 million tonnes of food aid to 'ensure that it abandoned plans
to try Pakistani war criminals'.

And a year later, when Bangladesh was faced with severe monsoons and
imminent floods, the then US Ambassador to Bangladesh made it abundantly
clear that the US probably could not commit food aid because of
Bangladesh's policy of exporting jute to Cuba.

And by the time Bangladesh succumbed to the American pressure, and stopped
jute exports to Cuba, the food aid in transit was 'too late for famine
victims'. Food was then a political weapon. Food aid has now in addition
become a commercial enterprise.

Devinder Sharma


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