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September 19, 2010

South Africa's maize surplus faces export obstacles over gene modification concerns

by Marine Veith

South Africa produces too much maize. Its neighbours not enough. But rather than feeding its neighbours, South Africa's surplus maize may feed Chinese chickens, due to regional worries about genetically modified crops.

South African farmers grew 13 million tonnes of maize in the harvest that ended around May. That included a surplus of four million tonnes, an excess that has pushed down prizes and threatens to bankrupt 10,000 farmers.

"The industry was not prepared for what happened. The surplus was causing panic. Over-production is not a sustainable way of producing," said Mariam Mayet of the African Centre for Biosafety.

Most of South Africa's neighbours had bumper harvests as well, driving down demand. But even countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi, which suffer chronic food shortages, refuse to accept South African maize because of worries about importing genetically modified organisms.

South Africa began planting genetically modified crops in the 1990s, and now they account for 57 percent of all maize planted in the country. Often the harvests are mixed together at mills, so that importers consider all maize as genetically modified (GM).

"Even some countries who don't have proper biosafety laws have a ban on GM, like Zimbabwe," Mayet said.
South Africa's surplus "has to go to special markets. Countries for whom GM is not a problem," she added.

In April, Kenyan environmentalists blocked a shipment of 40,000 tonnes of South African maize at port in Mombasa.

Regional reticence has left South Africa searching farther afield for a buyer, with China a leading candidate. The government earlier this month sent a delegation to China to discuss selling the surplus, most likely as feed to chicken farmers.

"The negotiations will become formal hopefully in October, when a Chinese delegation will come to South Africa," agriculture ministry adviser Ramse Madote said after returning from the trip.

Neither the proposed price nor the terms of the sale have been made public, but farmers fear that they'll get a low price because the Chinese know South Africa won't get better offers.

"The terms being negotiated with China are bound to reflect South Africa's lack of alternative options," said Philip White of the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme, an anti-poverty group.

It's a painful paradox in a region where millions of people will require emergency food aid.

"Even in a relatively plentiful year like this one, significant numbers of people continue to face hunger and many end up needing emergency assistance," White said.

About 1.7 million people in Zimbabwe, 500,000 in Malawi, and 250,000 in Mozambique will need food aid this year, according to the UN World Food Programme.


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