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Starving Africa should accept GMO food, US says

Date: 29-Jul-02
Country: SOUTH AFRICA
Author: Manoah Esipisu (Additional reporting by Shapi Shacinda in Lusaka and James Hall in Swaziland)

A severe food crisis threatens 13 million people in the six countries in the region - with Malawi and Zimbabwe the worst hit. The U.N. has appealed for a million tonnes of food, and traditionally half of the donation comes from America.

"The one issue that has caused the most controversy, and frankly is causing us the most difficulty, is the issue of so-called GMO-affected foods," said Roger Winter, assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"What we are being asked in some cases to do is to certify that a shipment of maize is GMO-free and that we are not able to do," Winter told reporters as he wound up a tour of the region, which took him to Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

"Delay (on accepting GMOs) is deadly in this. If they delay long, people are going to die in their countries because there are going to be huge gaps in the (food) pipeline he said.

He said Zimbabwe had previously blocked GMO food while Zambia had no policy. Only Malawi was ready to take whatever food aid it got because the only concern was to save lives.

Winter said Zimbabwe had accepted to take in a special consignment of 20,000 tonnes of maize that included GMO foods after USAID gave the country an August 1 deadline to take it or lose it. But he said that there was no word on future maize donations and therefore he did not take this to mean a policy about-turn.

Winter hinted that the blockage of GMO-food by Zimbabwe may be related to tense relations between Washington and Harare.

"The government (of Zimbabwe) wasn't really focused on what the consequences of not receiving our products might mean," Winter said, acknowledging the sour relations.

ZAMBIA REJECTS U.S. LOAN

Zambian Vice President Enock Kavindele told Reuters in Lusaka that his country had declined a $50 million line of credit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture because of provisions that it would have to purchase GMO commodities.

Governments had began asking fresh questions about health risks related to GMOs in the region after a recent meeting of ministers of the 14-member Southern African Development Community in Mozambique, USAID official Lauren Landis said.

Winter said a rejection of GMO food by the region could trim the U.S. ability to respond to the crisis, which he warned had the potential to last beyond current projections of March 2003.

He also said that the U.S. and other agencies would set up a monitoring unit to ensure that relief aid was not abused. It followed reports that in some areas of Zimbabwe, the government was using relief as a weapon against opposition supporters.

Experts have warned of lower crop harvests in Southern Africa and a medical crisis in the region after the 2002 drought.

Agri-meteorologist Johan van den Berg, of the Envirovision Consultancy, said a weak to moderate climate disruption expected during the next southern summer could trim Southern African grain harvests, but might boost crops in drought-ravaged areas in the region.

The latest seasonal forecast pointed to a maize crop 10 to 30 percent lower next year than this year, van den Berg said.

In Swaziland, a WHO meeting was warned of a malaria crisis in the post-drought period and health leaders were asked to be ready.

Mosquitoes would move in large large numbers and transmission and incidents of malaria would accelerate when rains fell, Dr Shiva Marugasampillay from Zimbabwe told a World Health Organisation Southern Africa malaria conference.

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