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Green beans, newspapers and blind panic

April 18, 2010

My life is currently dominated by imminent terrifying coursework deadlines, to be immediately followed by terrifying exams – a situation which, because of a peculiar combination of circumstances, largely beyond my control, is really unfair, just for ME. I have probably spent more time worrying/complaining about this than I have doing any actual work. Ho-hum.

In addition to the ongoing tedious requirements to earn a living and do my own laundry, I have to produce a 3,500-word theory essay and a 5,000-word food essay, the latter worth 40% of my core module, in the next week. I finished a continuous draft of my theory essay at 4 a.m. on Friday morning, but it needs some pretty serious editing, and the sleep deprivation has been… somewhat problematic. My food essay, which is vastly more important, is still essentially several pages of notes and a pile of books I haven’t read yet. Argh. And I managed to lock myself in a library. Double argh.

I am rhythmically chanting ‘vegetables… yoga… sleep’ to myself and hoping for the best. All suggestions for wild hedonism after May 19th are most welcome.

My food essay is going to be on genetically modified food aid, specifically looking at Zambia in 2002. During the famine in southern Africa, several countries turned down shipments of GM maize from USAID. Most of them eventually accepted it, but the Zambian government continued to refuse it unless it was milled. This was then taken up by various interest groups with little or no accountability to the Zambian people and used to a) severely criticise the government for ‘letting their people starve’ when there was no evidence these crops were harmful, or b) heap praise on the government for resisting international pressure to accept the food aid. From what I can gather, nobody seems to have done any research into the trivial matters of how many people were hungry, what parts of the country they were in, how the food aid was going to be distributed when it got there (i.e. whether it would have got to any of the most vulnerable people and had any positive impact, or whether it would have disrupted agricultural activities, and thus longer-term livelihoods, by encouraging people to move to urban areas, where a lot of food aid ends up), or whether the Zambian government’s alternative interventions (buying grain from African farmers) were effective. Or at least, if people have done this research, none of the people who feel qualified to give an opinion on the matter have bothered to read it!

In short, like with much of the GM debate, there’s a lot of overblown rhetoric and next to no actual facts.*

One factor I’m looking at is whether the Zambian government’s decision was in part motivated by a desire to protect their export market of organic vegetables to the EU. The EU and the US have been at loggerheads over food aid policy and trade in GM crops for years and years: the US preferring to give food aid in kind (grown by US farmers, and often packaged in the US and shipped by US companies) and the EU preferring to give money; the US seeking markets for its exports of GM food (in Europe and developing countries), the EU maintaining its moratorium on imports, despite being told by the WTO that this is illegal, because it cares about the health of its citizens/caved to consumer pressure in the wake of BSE/wants to protect markets for its own farmers (delete as applicable). One interpretation is that Zambia was basically a proxy in this ongoing trade dispute. Among the creative, resourceful things that people in famine situations often do is to plant some of the grain they’re given, choosing to be hungrier in the immediate future in favour of producing more food the following season; but in the case of GM this runs the risk of ‘contaminating’ other non-GM crops, and when your customers in the EU want it certified organic and GM-free… Interestingly, Zambia had said they would accept it if it was milled first (so people could eat it, but not plant it), but their request was denied on the grounds that it would be too expensive.

These high-end, fresh organic vegetables, of course, are air-freighted.** And, while I am immensely sorry for the absurdly high proportion of people on my facebook newsfeed currently stuck on holiday abroad/not on holiday abroad, I am far more interested in whether the Iceland volcano is going to cripple the Zambian economy. The Guardian devoted a small amount of space to this yesterday: combined with a short article about how people who normally live next to Heathrow are rather enjoying being able to hear themselves think and a brief respite from debilitating asthma, and an even shorter article about the complicated sciencey part, this took up, ooh, almost half a page.*** I haven’t seen any coverage in the Zambian newspapers I’ve been able to find online,**** but there are a few articles about Kenya, who are in a similar situation, one in the Guardian again, and one in Kenya’s Daily Nation. 5,000 people told not to come into work and losses of $1.3 million a day.

I’m pleased that someone has commented on the latter article suggesting that the already harvested and perfectly serviceable food is donated to hungry people in Nairobi. My friend’s FoodCycle project (of the 300kg of cheese fame) are worried they won’t be able to get as much food as normal to feed hungry people in London, since most of their donations are these kinds of highly perishable products.

It never ceases to amaze me how interconnected everything is, how, despite all these complicated structures and relationships, there are some things we can’t control, and how we’re apparently more worried about our foreign holidays than any of the challenging stuff…


* Yes, yes, we can also discuss what a ‘fact’ is and who gets to decide what’s important and/or true. Analysing how scientific discourse is used in the GM debate to obscure what is essentially a debate about values, not quantifiable health or environmental risks, is my FAVOURITE part of the whole exercise. =)

** Anyone who follows the continued baiting of anyone who tries to make socially responsible choices in the British press will know that we’re all supposed to be riddled with guilt about this.

*** After about five pages of disgruntled people complaining about cancelled flights. Honestly, if I wanted to read about that, I’d go on bloody Facebook. I buy a paper in the hope you’ll tell me something I CAN’T easily find out for myself. No wonder print journalism is dying!

**** Although I did read an interesting discussion of whether skin bleaching creams should be banned. Nice to know that coverage of serious political or economic issues comes second to scrutinising what women should do with their bodies everywhere.

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