29 May 2003

Africa's Dilemma in Genetically Modified food War

Kampala — Uganda and other African countries are increasingly finding themselves in the crossfire between the US and the EU over Genetically Modified food (GM).

Recently, US Trade Secretary, ambassador Robert Zoellick announced that 13 countries including South Africa and Egypt have now taken the EU to the World Trade Organisation asking it to break its five year moratorium on the licensing of new GM products in Europe. Uganda was however not named as one of the 13 countries.

The Monitor recently learnt the Uganda was formally requested to join the trade war between the US and the EU over the GM agricultural products. As result of this request, President Yoweri Museveni established a four-man committee comprising the Attorney General, Francis Ayume, Minister of Agriculture, Kisamba Mugerwa, Mr Patrick Rubweharo, and Dr Charles Mugoya of the National Council of Science and Technology.

Whatever conclusions the council reaches, the stakes are high.

Mr Zoellick recently told a press conference that the EU's reluctance to allow new GM products was scaring developing countries like Uganda from adopting disease fighting, high-yielding crop varieties for fear that they cannot export these crops to Europe.

"Uganda refused to grow a disease-resistant type of banana because of fears that it would jeopardise exports to Europe," he said.

"The human costs of rejecting this agricultural technology without good reason are enormous," Mr Zoellick said.

On Tuesday, the BBC quoted the US President Mr George Bush accusing the EU of obstructing efforts to fight famine in Africa because of "unfounded" fears over GM foods.

"Our partners in Europe have blocked all new bio-crops because of unfounded, unscientific fears," Mr Bush was quoted as saying.

He accused European nations of "impeding" US efforts to reduce hunger in Africa by opposing the use of GM crops.

"This has caused many African nations to avoid investing in bio-technologies for fear that their products will be shut out of European markets," Mr Bush said.

US seed companies are keen to sell their products to foreign market, but have so far had limited success. Many Europeans fear long-term harm to human health and the environment.

As the war of words between US and Europe continues, the US has been knocking at the door of developing countries seeking support for their case. Where does this leave Uganda?

Mr Richard Kimera, of the Uganda Consumer Protection Association said: "This trade war between the US and Europe over genetically modified foods is not a war for Uganda or Africa."

Mr Kimera described the "food politics", as a battle between economic elephants oblivious of the interests of less developed nations. Uganda is not the only African country concerned about bio-safety issues when it comes to agricultural GM crops.

Zambia recently rejected US food aid amidst a humanitarian crisis because of GM food fears.

Zambia banned the aid; saying it would rather go hungry than risk losing its export markets in Europe because its crops had been contaminated with GM seed.

Uganda's dilemma is to avoid getting caught between the powers when the options she has are already heavily weighed against her and other developing countries, according to Godbar Tumushabe of Advocates Coalition for Development (ACODE).

He said government should not antagonise Europe, which is its biggest donor and tradional partner.

One risk is that if developing countries like Uganda support the US stance, they could find they are rewarded by US domestic farmers producing cheaper produce in competition to them.

In their publication, "Rigid Rules and Double Standards. Trade, globalisation and the fight against poverty" Oxfam International argues that trade rules are rigged in favour of the rich countries.

"In their rhetoric, governments of rich countries constantly stress their commitment to poverty reduction, but use trade policy to conduct acts of robbery against the world's poor.

Those barriers cost developing countries $100 billion a year-twice as much as they receive in aid" Oxfam says.

If developing countries increased their world share of trade by 5 percent according to Oxfam, it would generate $350 billion, seven times what they receive in aid.

Separately, even if Europe was to accept GM imports, Uganda has a long way to go and millions of dollars to spend to achieve credible environments for biosafety, one expert said.

According to Dr Cheryl French of the US Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in the US Department of Agriculture, Uganda is where APHIS was ten years ago.

Copyright © 2003 The Monitor. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.