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Food aid and commercial imports of GM commodities: The case of Malawi (RABSAC - Phase II)
Malawi Polytechnic
University of Malawi - Blantyre
August 2006
Charles Mataya


Executive summary

The purpose of this paper is to estimate how the impact that different import policies toward GM commodities might have on food security in Malawi and the SADC region in general. If the government decides not to import GM commodities, either on commercial terms or as food aid during an emergency, will it jeopardize the country's access to needed food supplies? The paper heavily draws on secondary data and in-depth interviews from a limited number of public/private sector stakeholders. Findings of the Phase I OF THE Regional Approach to Biotechnology Policy in Southern Africa (RABESA) stakeholders' consultations on GM crops have also been instrumental in drawing conclusions on critical issues addressed in the paper.

The great drought of 1992 in Southern African countries including Malawi, necessitated a large influx of foreign produce, especially yellow maize from the USA and South America. It is well documented that by the late 1990s, a significant and growing proportion of U.S. food aid included GM maize (either as whole grain or flour) or GM soy extract (which is used to make "blended foods" that Congress mandates be given). It is also known that WFP has been distributing GM food aid in southern Africa and Malawi since the mid-1990s. How ever, there has been no documented evidence of toxic side effects to human, animals and the environment of consuming GM maize in Malawi as well as other countries in the Southern African Region. It is therefore interesting to note that that concerns of SADC member states about the risk to consuming GM only surfaced a decade later.

Anxiety and fear especially among members of the civil society of unknown consequences of consuming the product appear to have been heightened by inadequate information of the likely effects of transgenic products to human and animal health. At regional level, lack of information about the extent to which maize and food aid imports destined for food insecure nations in Southern Africa in the 1990s and 2000s contained GM material serves as a warning that without developing national and regional policy, legislation and regulatory frameworks, food security programmes and technological development in agriculture in the SADC region, with the exception of South Africa, would be externally driven. However, the paper observes that regulating imports of GM maize will not completely prevent entry of the product into Malawi considering the porosity of the border with neighbouring countries and the attractiveness of informal cross border trade.

The thrust of Government Policy in Malawi is to reorient the country's development paradigm from a consumption based economy to a production based one, as such science and technology, especially biotechnology are perceived as critical elements towards the attainment of this economic transformation. In line with this paradigm shift plus the objective of ensuring household and national food security, it is Government's imperative that all forms of technology including GM should be explored to assist farmers in improving their productivity. In this regard, Malawi has drafted a policy which is geared towards promoting commercialisation of biotechnology and international trade in biotechnology products. The policy also aims at promoting free enterprise and international collaboration in biotechnology industry so that public agencies and private enterprises can become involved in research and development (R&D) and commercialisation of new biotechnology products and services. Strategies to promote these aims and objectives as stated in the draft Biotechnology Policy are as follows:

  1. Starting the national biotechnology development programme and acquiring the necessary items of equipment and expertise with the view to building capacity and achieving self-reliance;
  2. Establishing appropriate linkages between the biotechnology programme and Science and Technology coordinating institution to facilitate a strong, locally based bio-informatics system;
  3. Establishing small and medium-scale biotechnology industries to engage in domestic bio-resource and biotechnological entrepreneurship development through:
    • Purchase of patent or trademark
    • Open market purchase of technology
    • Technical assistance and collaboration
  4. Setting up standards, specifications, guidelines and codes of practice according to international practice for biotechnology production and processing, including the handling of food aid.
In support of Government's stance on transgenic technology, studies have demonstrated that introduction of GM maize and cottonseed would double farmers' gross margins per hectare as long as yield or price levels are increased. Furthermore, it has been shown that GM technology has the potential to increase return to investment among maize and cotton growers in Malawi especially considering the reduction is the cost of pesticide application in the latter. For example a 15% reduction in yield loss as a result of using GM technology would double farmers' gross margins in both bt-cotton and bt-maize (IFDC 2004). However, gains from the introduction of any form of agricultural technology crucially depend on the farmers' investment in appropriate agronomic and farming practices necessary for that technology to manifest its potential.

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