10 November 2002

Zambians starve in row over GM food

By Basildon Peta in Kazungula, Zambia

Even when there is no drought to make their lives precarious, the villagers of Kazungula
cannot afford radios or televisions. So when Roger Moore came to visit them, they did not see The Saint or James Bond. All they saw was a rich foreigner who might have some food for them.

"Sir, is there any way you can help us?" Catherine Muwondo, 60, asked the 75-year-old movie star and his entourage. "We used to be human beings like you, but now we are animals. We have no food. We have to share the same food as animals in the bush ... This is why I say we have also become animals."

Men, women and children, clad in rags, had gathered under a huge musasa tree with the pain of permanent hunger etched on all their faces. Some had brought buckets, in the hope of immediate handouts of maize from Mr Moore and his wife, Kristina.

"We are here to try and help you," he told them. "Our mission is to see your plight and try to lobby organisations and world governments to help you." After listening to their stories for five hours, he said it was his worst encounter with hunger and poverty in his 12 years as a "goodwill ambassador" for Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund.

Three million Zambians are starving, but the world response has been lethargic. "I am here because the donations are not coming," Mr Moore said. "[Aid agencies] need two-thirds more than what they have been given. I feel angry that there is not enough world action to
alleviate this crisis."

At Livingstone, 12 miles from Kazungula, there are several thousand tonnes of emergency maize sitting in a warehouse. Some has been there since July. Not only has none been distributed, President Levy Mwanawasa has ordered that it be removed from Zambia, together with all the rest of the grain brought in by the World Food Programme, another UN agency.

The reason is that the corn is genetically modified. The Zambian government has rejected GM food on safety grounds, despite pressure from the US, multinationals, and even its own hungry citizens, who have looted some of the warehouses.

Some 200 environment and development groups from both rich and poor countries have backed Zambia's position. Many accuse the US of using the famine in southern Africa to spread GM technology in countries that have so far rejected it; farmers would plant some of the grain they are given to grow new crops, the genes would spread and then so much of the crop would be affected that they would be unable to export their produce to Europe.

The US refused to mill the seed before sending it, to make this impossible. The WFP is now arranging to have it milled after arrival, and is sending it to countries like Malawi and Mozambique that have agreed to accept it only in that form. Zambia alone refuses even to take milled GM grain. President Mwanawasa has borrowed $50m (£31m) from the World Bank to buy organic maize, though none has yet reached the poor.

While the argument drags on, the people of Kazungula and other villages go hungry. Zambia's politicians claim to be aware of their plight, but villagers in all the districts toured by Mr Moore and his UNICEF companions said they had not seen any local officials.

The actor said he believed it wrong for the US to refuse other aid to Zambia because of its rejection of genetically modified food. "That would be inhuman of them," he said. "We are dealing with a catastrophic situation here."

To donate to Unicef's southern Africa children's appeal call 08457 312 312 (24-hour local rate) or go to UNICEF's website www.unicef.org.uk/emergency