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Once again the rains have failed over the Horn of Africa; once again millions are faced with the bleak prospect of malnourishment or starvation; and once again the calls have gone out from the aid agencies for urgent international help. The story is as tragic as it is tragically familiar.
In Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda, more than nine million people are reckoned to be ‘critically short of food’, many of them in regions of conflict that the aid agencies find difficult to access. Clearly, international assistance is urgently needed, and the pledge from our own International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, to commit an extra £38 million in food is surely to be welcomed.
But underlying all of this, the question must be asked as to why it is that this region makes so little progress in overcoming the climactic difficulties with which it has been endowed. Adapting to, if not overcoming, the elements is after all a human speciality; just ask the Eskimos, or the Israelis for that matter, who successfully irrigate a country with less than half the annual rainfall of Ethiopia.
Clearly, the weakness (or in Somalia’s case, de facto non-existence) of national governments is a major part of the problem. Far too little is being done to reduce corruption, which remains chronically high across the region according to Transparency International and governance generally remains very poor.
It is a telling indicator, as Jonathan Clayton points out in today’s Times, that 135 tonnes of fresh flowers and vegetables leave Kenya for Britain every day, at a time when 3.5 million Kenyans are facing potential starvation. Entire books have been written on the problem of throwing aid at the symptoms of a problem, and doing little to redress its cause, but this is no less true for being said so often, and the British Government and others must work seriously to help address this issue.
The second problem, however, remains the region’s reluctance to adopt GM crops, ‘advised’ by largely Western pressure groups that they will only exacerbate the problem. Without question, the decision to introduce genetically modified produce into any habitat must be very carefully considered, and subjected to the most rigorous scrutiny. But over the past decade,according to former anti-GM campaigner Mark Lynas, there has not been “a single substantiated case of GM foods having had any negative effects on health or the environment anywhere in the world”. I certainly haven’t heard of any, and I have little doubt that all the relevant lobby groups would have wasted no time in making the dangers very public if such cases had been proven. GM crops can increase yields by several hundred per cent, as well as enabling the production of crops in arid or other inhospitable climates where non-GM crops are inclined to fail.
So let’s start to think again about food security in Africa, and put aside some of the old prejudices; millions of human lives could depend on it.