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Genetically modified food in the Southern Africa Food Crisis of 2002-2003

Institute for the Study of International Migration

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From the introduction:

Concern about the health and agricultural effects of genetically modified (GM) food has been growing worldwide. As a trade issue, the stakes are very high, as evidenced by the May 2003 case brought before the World Trade Organisation (WTO) by the United States and other countries against the European Union (EU). This issue has had an important impact on the delivery of food aid in the Southern African crisis of 2002 and 2003. This case discusses how and why GM food affected this humanitarian crisis.

In certain countries, GM food achieved domestic political importance, leading governments to intervene to prohibit its delivery. Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe each took exception to the fact that about one-third of the food aid offered in the crisis, yellow maize from North America, was genetically modified. Maize, the commodity of choice of consumers in southern Africa, is the least expensive food that the United States can provide to save the most lives in food crises, and U.S. farmers generally do not distinguish between GM and non-GM maize. The political opposition to allowing GM foods into each country flared up in the middle of the crisis, and had not been anticipated by donors or other donor agencies. Concerned about the possibility of famine in the region, the United States put ships filled with relief maize on the high seas even before the official appeals went out. Thus, much of the relevant supply chain was already filled with GM maize as the first pulse of relief response when governments suddenlydecided they would not permit it into their country, even though North American yellow maize has been the dominant form of emergency food aid for distribution throughout Africa for decades.

Could aid agencies have anticipated or predicted a potential reluctance to accept GM food aid during a crisis response in 2002? The next two sections of this case provide background information about this question.

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