The World Food program is calling for an end to the confusion over genetically modified maize so it can be use to save starving populations. The WFP blames the confusion on misinformation and a lack of information among southern Africa policymakers. Zambia and Zimbabwe have rejected relief maize from the United States, fearing it may have been genetically modified.
World Food Program regional bureau chief for eastern and southern Africa, Judith Lewis, describes the food situation in the region as getting worse and urges policy makers to find a solution to the confusion.
Last week, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa declared his country GM free and said he would bar genetically modified relief maize until his government reaches an informed decision. Ms. Lewis says the WFP is powerless to act in such circumstances.
She says, "Well from what we understand the president basically said that he will take the decision about the grain from the United States government and that he will be looking at all of the information so that he can make an informed decision about this, I think clearly he’s left the door open for more negotiations. I think that the issue with GM is that there is so much misinformation, disinformation and lack of information about this issue, so I think everybody is trying to see how can we get more information to the people who need to take informed decisions and then how can we do this quickly so that we can continue to deliver food to the people who need it.
Zimbabwe, which is hard hit by famine with almost a third of its 12 million population facing an acute food shortage, became the first country to turn down 10 thousand tons of relief maize from the US government in June.
Ms. Lewis, however, says a solution to that stand-off has been found. Donors and the government are looking for funds to mill the maize and distribute flour. Milling would prevent local farmers from using the grain as seeds and thus introducing genetically modified crops into the country.
Authorities in Harare say producing such crops could threaten exports to the European Union. The EU has outlawed GM product imports.
While scientists are uncertain about te long term effects of GM food on human health and the ecology in the long run, fears of serious problems have been dismissed. Activists on other hand say since effects on human health are unknown, its better to have such products clearly lebeled so consumers are informed.
Aid agencies in southern Africa want a quick end to the debate on GM foods. Judith Lewis say many people are surviving by eating wild herbs and roots.
Ms. Lewis says, "The situation in southern Africa is going worse by the day, the further we get away from one harvest period and then moving towards the other the more difficult it becomes for people who are poor. And then this year, particularly for poor farmers who were affected by natural causes, we’re seeing a tremendous upsurge in malnutrition, we’re seeing people begin to move around a little bit, so the situation we think is deteriorating even further much earlier than we had anticipated. The response has been building, mounting but clearly from the World Food Programme side we just are about one quarter percent resourced so we have a long way to go before we can meet all the food needs for the people that we are trying to reach."
WFP estimates it needs over $500 million to feed millions of starving people in six southern African countries. It says the food aid is needed between now and March of 2003 when the next harvest arrives.
Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe are facing the worst food shortage this decade due to a combination of factors including poor weather, effects of HIV/Aids and failed policies.