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An African Perspective

November 1, 2002 12:00 AM
By Tim Pascall in Challenge

"Europeans are shouting themselves hoarse, on full stomachs of course, about the dangers of bio-technology in agriculture" Sunday Standard, Nairobi, 08-09-2002

I have just returned from my fourth visit in three years to Malawi, the "warm heart of Africa". Like Paul Marsden, I too visited one of the villages where the people simply have nothing left to eat. Their harvest had failed two years in a row and they had no seed to sow. The saddest thing I saw was mothers trying to breastfeed their children, but with no milk to give. At least I was able to hand out enough cash that I had collected to provide food for about six weeks.

Most people in Malawi and the surrounding countries do not live just above the poverty line: they live just above the starvation line. Malawi's per capita GDP is $230; Holland's is $22,000. So it only takes very little to go wrong for them to have to sell everything they have got just to get hold of food for their children. And that does not mean selling furniture, the TV and the car, but pots, blankets and their four chickens. Meanwhile they are cooking grass to try to stay alive.

In the riches of Europe we have no idea of what utter poverty really means.

Malawi has accepted North America's offer to offload some of its surplus maize even though it cannot be guaranteed to be 'GM-free'. Zambia is refusing to take it: "Prepared to let their people starve for the sake of a principle," Monsanto will say while environmentalists reply 'Not worth the risks". But there are two risks - starvation now and future damage.

There is fear, very real fear, that Africa's land will not be able to cope with genetically modified seed in the way that North America's large plains can, and Africa is in no position to cope with a failed experiment. But 13 million people are facing starvation. Perhaps no more than a 'few thousand' will die but just close your eyes and imagine what it is like to have to wait all day for a meal, and then get no satisfaction - and for that to go on continuously for eight months.

The maize could be ground down to flour. That way it can be used for food but not as seed, avoiding the GM risks. But then it won't keep as long. And who will pay for the grinding? Of course, we could just say that we offered them the food and that should be the end of it.

Environmental issues are always more complicated in the world of poverty. Malawi's trees have disappeared, not to provide us with nice furniture but to provide the local people with wood to cook by and to bum their bricks. They could, of course, build a house of unburned mud-bricks: it is what we see on postcards from Africa. But unburned bricks survive four years at most and are no protection against termites which, if they get in, will eat up everything in sight.

So the trees are cut down, leading to terrible erosion. Trees are needed to hold on to the water, but now the rains just flow away into the lakes and rivers, the cause of the increasing number of droughts and floods in Africa. What the people really need is coal, but that is 'not on' in environmental terms, at least not for us. But we have six cars for every ten people, Malawi one per thousand. We have over 50 flights a day between Amsterdam and London, they only have 10 a week between Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, and Johannesburg, the nearest large commercial centre.

It is we who are destroying the environment, so we should be very careful about asking the poorest people on earth to pay the price for our waste. We're not starving, they are!