The PR exploitation of drought and hunger in Zambia shows that for the GM lobby there are no limits, even when it involves rewriting history and manufacturing crimes against humanity.
This year, following scanty and erratic rainfall, many of Zambia's maize fields have had the life scorched out of them. In some provinces the severity of the drought may mean a crop failure of 100 percent. With maize reserves falling short of the country's requirement, the Zambian government has banned the export of maize meal to neighbouring countries in a bid to forestall the looming food deficit.
This crisis is reminiscent of the crises Zambia faced in 2000 and 2002. It's not only the threat of hunger, though, that's reviving painful memories; it's also the way in which that threat is being exploited. For the genetically modified foods lobby, tragedy spells opportunity, with drought and crop failure providing the perfect platform to pressure the Zambian government over its resistance to genetically modified organisms.
So far, instead of going down the GM route, Zambia has been looking to alternatives to feed its population. Three years ago, when that strategy was first adopted, it led to Colin Powell's denunciation of Zambia at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. And Powell's attack was just one element in a virulent US/industry campaign of pressure and dissimulation that continues to this day.
The backdrop in 2002 was crop failure across much of southern Africa. Famine was said to be looming in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho and Angola. The US had responded by offering as relief its surplus GM maize, but several countries including Zambia had rejected it.
Eventually, all but Zambia were pressured into accepting the GM grain, at least in a milled form which prevented replanting. But the Zambian President, Levy Mwanawasa, would only make his final decision after a team of Zambian scientists and economists completed a fact-finding tour of laboratories and regulatory offices in South Africa, Europe and the US. Their report concluded that studies on the safety of GM foods were inconclusive, and that the GM maize should be rejected as a precautionary measure.
From the start, the US responded forcefully. "Eat GM or starve, America tells Africa," ran one Reuters headline. "Beggars can't be choosers," an unnamed state department official told the Washington Post. When the Zambians replied that even beggars shouldn't be denied the dignity of self-determination, the Americans accused them of risking a "human catastrophe".
Despite US intransigence, alternative food supplies were found and starvation was averted, as President Mwanawasa noted when addressing a public rally in Zambia's Copperbelt recently. "In 2002, there was hunger in the country and [the] government had rejected GMO maize from donors who predicted that a considerable number of people would die of hunger, but this did not happen".
America's use of potential starvation as a bargaining chip shocked many, particularly when--as ActionAid's Emergencies Programme Adviser, Donald Mavunduse pointed out--African governments and civil society organizations had raised legitimate concerns about GM. "They worry about its safety for health and the environment, how it is controlled and by whom, and about the impact of GM on the future livelihoods of their citizens," said Mavunduse. "These concerns should be addressed, not ridden over roughshod."
Even among British government ministers and advisors, there seemed a palpable unease at what was happening. According to The Observer newspaper, Tony Blair's chief scientific adviser denounced the United States' attempts to force the technology into Africa as a "massive human experiment". The paper reported that, "In a scathing attack on President Bush's administration, Professor David King also questioned the morality of the US's desire to flood genetically modified foods into African countries, where people are already facing starvation in the coming months."
But for the GM lobby, the failure to offload GM food even onto a country wracked by hunger made for a humiliating global spectacle, and they weren't about to back off. The tone had been set at the Earth Summit when Andrew Natsios, the head of USAID, had gone after the organizations opposing GM. "The Bush administration," Natsios warned, "is not going to sit there and let these groups kill millions of poor people in southern Africa through their ideological campaign".
Also on the US hit list were Zambia's leaders. The US Ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Agencies, Tony Hall, called for African leaders who had refused US food aid to be tried "for the highest crimes against humanity in the highest courts of the world." The US Trade Representative, Robert Zoellick had the European Union firmly in his sights. Zoellick linked Zambia's refusal of GM grain to sanctions he claimed the EU had threatened. The EU's Trade Commissioner, Pascal Lamy, described this claim as "very simply immoral".
"Zambia is a sovereign country and makes its own decisions," Lamy said in an interview with Newsweek. "Zambians do not need to be heroic to assert their sovereignty. GM-free supplies are available in surplus in southern Africa. Europe's policy is to provide food aid procured in the region, rather than as a means of disposing of domestic stocks... The simple solution is for the US to behave as a real aid donor."
The EU's Development Commissioner, Poul Nielson, also waded in, describing the claim that the EU had threatened the Zambians as "a very negative lie." He told reporters that he wanted to propose a deal to the Americans: "The deal would be this: if the Americans would stop lying about us, we would stop telling the truth about them."
The reason for Zoellick's targeting of the EU became clearer a few months later when the US Trade Representative announced plans to sue the EU at the World Trade Organisation unless it opened up its markets to American GM products. The WTO case was filed in the name of Africa.
Around this time I was forwarded an email that had been sent to a leading environmental campaigner, demanding that he spell out his position on Zambia. The sender of the email was one "Max Russell-Bennett," ostensibly a private citizen, and he attached to his email a press release from the pro-GM lobby group AgBioWorld. The press release seemed to imply that a few years earlier thousands had died in the Indian state of Orissa--victims of resistance to GM food aid. AgBioWorld urged "activists" not to repeat "the mistakes of 'Orissa'".
In reality, the deaths in Orissa had been due to a devastating cyclone, and no one had died for want of GM food. And a check on the email's technical headers revealed it had originated not with a private individual but with Monsanto Belgium. This message, crafted by a multinational corporation in the guise of a fake citizen, with its deceptive history attached, seemed to capture the cynical mendacity that has marked the industry's Zambia campaign.
Just why the biotech industry was prepared to go to such lengths can be seen from the comments of Berndt Halling of the Brussels-based lobby group, EuropaBio. Halling told a reporter that "the green lobby" had over-reached itself and the food-aid crisis in Africa provided "the first issue that has the ability to destroy their credibility." Halling went on, "I want to know if they are going to accept responsibility for the people that will die as a result of the refusal of GM aid."
As with the EU, stories began to circulate about how environmentalists had blackmailed Zambia into rejecting GM food aid. The syndicated-columnist, Paul Driessen painted them as co-conspirators, "environmental radicals and the European Union are screaming 'genetic pollution' and threatening to withdraw aid and ban agricultural exports from any countries that plant or distribute the [GM] grains." In a speech Driessen added, "Radical Greens spread rumours that the corn was poisonous, and might cause cancer, or even AIDS. So it got locked up in warehouses, while children starved..."
Starving children and dead Africans were necessary collateral for the Zambia campaign, so Roger Bate, a Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, helpfully put a number on the death toll. Bate told his readers that aid workers in Zambia had had to take "food away from the mouths of starving children" and that "perhaps as many as 20,000 Zambians died as a result." Others went still further, claiming that "millions" of Zambians had been "left to starve".
The marketing of this heinous crime continues unabated. In early 2005, the former Head of Regulatory Affairs at Syngenta, Willy DeGreef, spoke of the need to identify those responsible for the "outrage" and "tragedy" of having "children starve" rather than eat "genetically enhanced foods": "How did we get that far; who was responsible for whispering (those) messages to those policy makers... That is something that I would rather sooner or later want to find out, because you're talking about literally crimes against humanity."
Even in a world awash with spin and disinformation, constructing a deceitful public relations campaign out of starving children seems peculiarly distasteful. Yet DeGreef's comments merely served as a springboard for Alex Avery, of the biotech-industry-backed Hudson Institute, to go a step further and actually name those that had the "blood of the starvation victims" on their hands.
At the top of Avery's list was Dr Charles Benbrook, a former Executive Director of the Board on Agriculture for the US National Academy of Sciences. Benbrook's crime had been to tell the Zambian scientists during their fact-finding mission that there was no shortage of non-GM foods which could be offered to Zambia and that, "To a large extent, this 'crisis' has been manufactured (might I say, 'engineered') by those looking for a new source of traction in the evolving global debate over agricultural biotechnology." Dr. Benbrook added, "To use the needs of Zambians to score 'political points' on behalf of biotechnology strikes many as unethical and indeed shameless."
Another of those with blood on his hands, according to Avery, was the British campaigner Robert Vint. Vint responded, "the people you are accusing committed the offence of participating in a consultation exercise organised by the US and UK Governments for Zambian scientists. Discussing scientific matters as part of a dialogue in which opposing views were heard hardly constitutes murder. The Zambian scientists listening to these various views were doctors and professors--mainly educated in American universities. Surely you don't believe that because they were black they could be easily brainwashed by Westerners? My specific crime, by the way, was to suggest to the Zambian delegation that they obtain and review the original safety research on GM foods. I'm a great supporter of sound science and empirical research. Oddly, both the US and UK Government representatives refused to provide this data--or even to confirm its existence. Maybe you could provide it?"
Clement Chipokolo from Zambia also took issue with Avery, telling him, "you mentioned that there were several deaths that resulted from the decision that the government took. May I put it to you that the only recorded deaths that we know of were before the GM saga came to the fore... your statements are typical of a well funded lobbyist who would do what ever it takes to achieve his mission, in this case promotion of GMOs."
He went on, "just on Tuesday our government announced that the country faces a maize deficit of 300,000 metric tonnes and has appealed for help. I was wondering what kind of help would come from your end. Please make sure it is not GM because it might just go back." Chipokolo ended by adapting a saying from the Book of Joshua, "Know today what you are going to eat, as for me and my country we shall eat no GMOs."