The international biosafety meeting in Brazil has made a compromise deal labelling GM food imports. But East African countries are concerned they still won't be sure if food aid contains GM.
The recipients of food aid for decades, poor and hunger-stricken countries in East Africa say they want all food imports – including food aid – to state clearly whether or not they contain Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
Labelling GM foods, whose health and environmental effects are uncertain and controversial, was the subject of heated debates at the just-concluded meeting of the international Biosafety Protocol in Curitiba before a compromise deal was finally struck on the night of 17 March.
According to the deal, if an exporter knows that a shipment of food aid contains unprocessed 'living' GMOs then labels must be explicit and declare that it 'contains' GMOs. However, negotiators struck a compromise after the delegations of Mexico and Paraguay argued that verification was not always possible because the supply chain couldn't be tested all the way down to the source.
As a result, the conference allowed a provision for exporters to use 'may contain' for up to six years if they are not sure about the origin or presence of GMOs in the shipment. The Protocol will review the suitability of this arrangement at its meeting in four years' time.
In the face of famine
The agreement comes at a time when millions of poor people are facing hunger in East Africa and the Horn of Africa region as a result of drought. The most vulnerable countries at the moment are Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and Somalia, according to UN and other agencies. Also at risk are Uganda and Tanzania.
A Ugandan delegate, who requested anonymity, said his government would reject any food aid which was found to have live GMOs.
"GM food is allowed in Uganda but it should come in processed [milled] form and should be labelled. Short of that, we shall reject it."
Uganda's policy stance is similar to that of some countries in southern Africa, including Zambia, which four years ago became the first African country to reject food aid from the United States on the grounds that it contained genetically modified corn.
The policy aims to ensure that live GMO seed does not accidentally mix with non-GM plants.
According to Gordon Simango, information officer for Christian Care, an NGO in Zambia, nearly 2.7 million people in Uganda are at risk of hunger. However, he says, most organisations delivering food aid do not have policies on GM food, except a few that say: 'all beneficiaries have the right to choose and decide if they want GM food aid or not'.
Critics point out that the deal struck in Curitiba has many loopholes, not least the fact that the obligations only apply to member-states of the Biosafety Protocol. As for non-members – the US is the most prominent one – the Protocol does no more than urge compliance. Furthermore, most African countries have yet to put in place their national biosafety laws.
Nnimmo Bassey of the Nigerian chapter of Friends of the Earth, an international NGO, said governments cannot afford to wait for four years to review their policies. "We shouldn't wait for GMOs to multiply and then start trying to control them later when they are already uncontrollable," he said.
"African leaders should start transferring food from upcountry, where there is plenty of food, to famine-stricken areas and not just rely on imported GM food or plants whose side-effects are still obscure."
Making informed choices
The Ugandan delegate said it was not for governments to tell hungry people what to eat. "For us, we tell our people the truth about food containing GMOs. It is the decision of an individual receiving GM food to decide whether to eat it or reject it."
Meanwhile, he said, Uganda is in the process of creating a biosafety framework and has started training scientists to analyse GMOs.
"A draft [of the framework] has been made by the National Council of Science and Technology and it is ready for approval. Besides, we have a fully-equipped research laboratory at Kawanda Country Research Institute [in Kampala] and it will start operating once the law is ready."
Delegates from several other African countries, including Namibia and Ghana, said they were drafting laws and setting up national testing facilities for GMOs. But many also pointed to the urgent need to inform farmers back home of the decisions made at Curitiba, particularly given the potential risk of contamination of their crops by GM seed contained within food aid shipments.
"Some delegates come here and, after attending the meetings, they go back and don't bother to pass on the information down to their farmers," complained a delegate from Mauritius.
Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, head of the African Group and director general of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia, said that food aid labels should reveal exactly what they contain.
"Besides, donors must be liable for any misinformation that may be discovered afterwards on both environment and health. Food aid is governed by the rules of the Protocol to make sure that there is no contamination in the environment and health," he added.
One way around the problem, says Simango of Christian Care Zambia, is for donors to offer 'cash-based food aid' whereby they give cash to governments to buy food, instead of sending food consignments which in any case "can go bad in transit."
Ebenezer T Bifubyeka is a reporter with The New Vision newspaper in Uganda and founder of the Mbarara Environmental Advocates Link (MEAL), which seeks to create environmental awareness among local leaders, politicians, academics and the general public.
His coverage of GM issues has won him a Panos fellowship to report on the WTO ministerial meeting in Hong Kong in December 2005 and from the CBD meeting in Brazil in March 2006.