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Africa food crisis worsens

BY HEIDI VOGT | BALTIMORE | October 21, 2002


"Food stocks are running out sooner than expected."

—Paul Macek


Southern Africa is waiting for rain, rain that hasn't come for the past two years. Drought has whittled down food stores and now the population of an entire region is struggling to survive the most severe food shortage in six decades.

Some 14.4 million people in southern Africa are in urgent need of food aid, according to the World Food Program. This is 1.6 million more people than were estimated to be facing hunger at the beginning of the food crisis in May.

"Food stocks are running out sooner than expected," said Paul Macek, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) regional emergency representative for southern Africa. "There's just not enough food coming in."

Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Swaziland are all already receiving thousands of tons of food aid and will require much more to feed their populations until the next growing season.

"The need continues to be great and will only get greater,” said Bruce Campbell-Janz, relief project manager for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) in Canada. "November -- December is planting season in much of Southern Africa. The next major harvest won't be until March or April."

But in these famine-decimated countries much of the seed that usually goes to planting the fields has already been eaten. "We're providing seed for the coming growing season in Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique," said Campbell-Janz. The World Food Program issued a statement last week citing the urgent need for seeds and fertilizers throughout the region.

The type of seed sent has started a whole new debate. Many southern African countries are hesitant to accept genetically modified (GMO) maize.

Zimbabwe and Malawi are accepting genetically modified maize only in flour form to guarantee that it will only be eaten, not planted in the fields where it could crossbreed with local crops.

Zambia has taken the hardest line, putting a hold on the distribution of all maize provided by the U.S. government (a mixture of traditional and genetically modified kernels) until they are able to assure themselves that there will be no negative effects from the consumption of genetically modified food. The United States is by far the largest supplier of World Food Program aid in Southern Africa.

Independent disaster response organizations are stepping in to fill the void left by the undelivered U.S. maize. CRWRC is currently purchasing pure white maize (which has no genetically modified strains) in Canada to send to Zambia. "Our commitment is to the people that are in need in these countries," said Campbell-Janz. "We're going to make the process work. It's a matter of finding alternatives."

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) announced a similar plan at the end of September. CRS will distribute 50 metric tons of non-GMO white maize to villages in Zambia’s Shangombo district. CRS also committed to procuring an additional 500 metric tons of locally produced grain for distribution in Zambia.

"We respect the right of the Zambian government and our Church partners to determine their own policy regarding GMOs,” said CRS country representative, Michele F. Broemmelsiek. "We will continue to work with them to seek alternatives so that no one in the country goes hungry."

While governments debate the larger issues, disaster response organizations are just doing their best to get food and seed to people who are running out of options.

"There's already been a massive consumption of forest roots," said Jacob Kramer, international relief administrator for the CWRC. "They dig them up. There's nothing else."

"People are selling everything they can," added Kramer. "First go the animals but they don't have a lot on them anyway. Then they try to sell whatever they have: ploughs, pots, pans, anything."

The Lutheran World Federation/World Service - Zambia Christian Refugee Service reported that the low prices animals and poultry currently fetch are still not enough to buy the ever more expensive maize.

But even those who have money aren't necessarily finding food. "In a lot of these places there's just no food left to buy," said Clive Calver, president of World Relief. "In Malawi the folks say to you 'We ate nothing yesterday. We ate nothing today. We'll eat nothing tomorrow. The food ran out last week.' "

The southern African food shortage began with a few seasons of poor rainfall. The ensuing drought resulted in very low crop yields. The drought alone would have produced a serious food crisis, but it hit a region where the population had already succumbed to HIV/AIDS by the thousands. Many villages simply had very few people left to work in the fields and bring in what harvest there was.

"The productive capacity of these villages has been very negatively impacted by AIDS," said Kramer. "There are large families where grandparents take care of the children, sometimes 15 to 20 of them. It's an added stress to the whole situation. A lot of money has already gone for medicine during the time that there was food."

Disaster response organizations aren't giving up. "I don't see the situation as being hopeless," said Calver. "You can do something. It's basic needs: fertilizer, seed, a stable government, order. I can't do all of those things, but what I can do is work through the churches on the ground to get people fed."

World Relief uses networks of local churches to get food to people in areas that other organizations might not be reaching.

"We're heavily focused on insuring that there is seed for this current planting season," said CRS's Macek. "If we get a good planting season this year and a good harvest season next year we'll come out of the acute phase of the food security crisis."

An estimated 1.2 million metric tons of food aid is required to avert famine conditions throughout the region until March 2003. In the meantime farmers search for seed and wait, hoping that this year, November will bring a heavy rain.


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