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Malawi Suffers Severe Food Shortage - 2002-10-18

A recent assessment by the Southern Africa Development Community says more than 14 million people will soon face food shortages in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique. Experts say an estimated one million metric tons of food aid is required to ward off starvation until the next harvests in April and May.

In Malawi, the World Food Program is now feeding 1.2 million people with 20,000 tons of food per month. The reasons for the food shortages include political instability, drought in some areas, and flooding in others. Because of the shortages, the cost of what food is available has increased by 50 percent over the past year, well beyond the reach of many Malawians, 60 percent of whom live below the poverty line.

Malawi's main staple, maize, is usually harvested in April. Last year only 1.5 million metric tons were produced - 28 percent less than the five-year average. A smaller harvest including vegetables and root crops like sweet potatoes and cassava will be ready in November. But is not expected to be enough to feed the country.

"The crisis will get worse," said Jannie Armstrong, the spokesman for the WFP in Lilongwehe. "Malawi has a traditional hungry season between January and March By next January, we expect to be feeding 3.2 million people that's 28 percent of the population of Malawi."

Malawi has a maize deficit of over 570,000 metric tons. The WFP and other donors are providing 200,000 metric tons of the grain, and the private sector will import 100,000 metric tons. Also, The government will import 250,000 metric tons of maize.

About half of that is coming from the United States, where the use of genetically modified foods has become increasingly common. However, the distribution of genetically modified maize has triggered alarm among some aid recipients, who fear the seeds could cause unforeseen problems.

The mission director for the United States Agency for International Development in Malawi, Roger Yockelson, says about 30 percent of all American maize production is genetically modified and mixed with other maize in silos. It is consumed by Americans and officials say it is impossible to separate for sale. He says the cabinet of the Malawi government originally wanted to ban the genetically modified maize. But Mr. Yockelson says the government was persuaded there is no conclusive scientific evidence for not using the maize and good humanitarian reasons for using it.

"I went to the government, and talked to the ministers, the vice president and the scientists, and pointed out a couple of things: scientifically, that there is no definitive evidence this will create contamination, also they do not have the capacity to mill the maize or money on this planet to pay for the process," he said. "The donors and the government do not have it... and in light of those factors, it ill behooves the government to continue a policy as announced by the cabinet that would mean the suffering and death of a number of people. [Milling] would mean the maize would be held up, it will delay this for a month, it will triple the price of the maize and money will have to be found for the additional cost, you get into the rainy season with delivery problems and a lot of people will not get their maize."

Moving such large quantities of food into landlocked Malawi is a challenge. Jannie Armstrong of the World Food Program says his organization is using three main ports to meet the demand - Beira and Nacala, Mozambique and Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. "The WFP with the support of the Canadian government and British government is working to reinforce the Nacala corridor where about 77 kilometers of rail line is [partly] damaged, " he said. "Trains can run no faster than 10 kilometers per hour. We will repair that to facilitate food into Malawi but with benefits to the region, and which will hopefully open up Malawi that much more as well as point west into Zambia and Zimbabwe. This is an indication of how we're trying to improve the logistical infrastructure of the country."

With the start of the rainy season, the World Food Program has pre-positioned fleets of trucks ready to risk some of the worst roads in the most desolate parts of Malawi. Aid officials say the World Food Program is working with 13 other non-governmental organizations spread out around the country to ensure that those in need are located. But they say the real challenge will be how quickly the food can be delivered.