ZIMBABWE: GM maize accepted as crisis deepens

johannesburg, 6 September 2002 (IRIN) - An acceptance by Zimbabwe of food aid containing genetically modified (GM) maize comes as humanitarian officials warn that the country's food crisis is set to worsen.

"We are starting to see evidence of serious malnutrition in Zimbabwe. There are some indications of kwashiorkor, but it is not yet widespread," Carolyn McAskie, Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator in the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told IRIN on Friday. "There are warning signals that a crisis is looming."

McAskie, touring Southern Africa as part of a two-week assessment mission headed by James Morris, the Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa, described Zimbabwe's acceptance of GM food as a "seriously major step forward".

Morris, who is also the World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director, met Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe on Thursday. He "welcomed assurances by the government of Zimbabwe that they will go ahead with an agreement to distribute more food aid in the country while addressing the government's concerns over potentially genetically modified food," said Fred Eckhard, the spokesman of the UN secretary-general.

"The president gave his assurance on a proposed swap of 17,500 mt maize grain, donated to WFP by the United States, for an equivalent amount of government-owned maize meal. WFP says the swap is a positive step forward in addressing the Government's concern over importing non-milled maize, which potentially contains genetically modified organisms [GMO], while ensuring the population receives urgently-needed supplies of food aid through the World Food Programme," Eckhard added.

Zimbabwe's acceptance of food aid containing GMO was on condition that it would be milled before distribution to prevent the possible contamination of local crops, a Zimbabwean bio-safety expert told IRIN.

"When it comes from the border, it will go straight to the miller, then to the consumer. We don't want the seeds to be dropped or planted in the ground," said Abisai Mafa, the registrar of Zimbabwe's Bio-Safety Board.

"It will be distributed as mealie meal [milled maize]. And instead of just distributing without informing people, they will be told what type of food they will be getting, and it is up to them to choose whether they want it or not," said Steyn Berejena, a spokesman in Zimbabwe's Department of Information.

Ian Kind, managing director of Zimbabwe's National Foods, told IRIN that it was not immediately clear who would mill the maize. But he said that it was only private millers, such as his company, who had the capacity to process large amounts.

The state-run Grain Marketing Board (GMB), "have offices on the premises so they could watch the process carefully", he said. He advised against using the GMB's network of small hammer-millers scattered throughout the country as this would reduce the level of control needed to satisfy the government's concerns.

Zimbabwe has a long-standing ban on GM food based on environmental concerns. However, the bulk of food aid on offer to Southern Africa has been donated by the United States, and contains GMOs. With six million people facing serious food shortages, the government has finally bowed to international pressure to accept GM maize.

Morris on Friday urged donors to increase their aid to Zimbabwe. Only US $82 million - or one-third of the UN's US $285 million appeal for Zimbabwe - has been received to help the country overcome its food crisis, caused in part by natural disasters and policy-related issues, the UN news wire reported.

"The magnitude of hardship was engraved on the faces I saw. I was struck by the tragic stories people told," said Morris, who arrived in Zimbabwe on Wednesday as part of his mission to six countries in the region. "Clearly, every day is a massive struggle to survive and the situation will only worsen over the months ahead."

Theme (s): Food Security, Health & Nutrition,


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