Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe: Interview with US ambassador Joseph Sullivan

HARARE, 27 June (IRIN) - The Zimbabwe government recently refused to accept a donation of genetically modified (GM) grain from the United States, despite half of its population being threatened with starvation. Harare cited long standing safety and health concerns over GM food as being behind its decision.
IRIN spoke to Joseph Sullivan, the US ambassador to Zimbabwe, on the row over the banned 10,000 mt grain consignment, and the wider concerns surrounding Zimbabwe's food crisis.

QUESTION: The Zimbabwean government has refused genetically modified grain from your country, did this come as a shock to you?

ANSWER: We Americans eat genetically modified corn with no problems. We see no reason why it should present a problem to any other country. So for us to be able to be as helpful as we wish to be, it would be important for the government of Zimbabwe to waive this restriction and to allow us to supply the food that we do have available.

Q: So you have not been able at all to give Zimbabwe GM grain?

A: Yes. We have provided maize meal which has been permitted to be imported, but whole corn has not been allowed, and this is a constraint upon our ability to help. We have probably the greatest supply of maize or corn in the world, but we are not able to provide what we have available to the people of Zimbabwe under current rules. So we hope those rules can be changed, waived, so that we can help.

Q: Other countries in the Southern Africa region are also facing food shortages, are you also giving them genetically modified food?

A: Yes. Other countries in the Southern African region notably Mozambique, Zambia and Malawi have all waived any restrictions they had on the importation of genetically modified grain and so have been able to benefit.

Q: Is Zimbabwe's fall out with the international community a factor in affecting what levels of assistance donors will be giving?

A: We do want to help Zimbabwe and I know other donors want to help the people of Zimbabwe but there are things, certainly, that the government of Zimbabwe can do to make it easier to provide more food for its population.

Q: What are these things?

A: The monopoly on distribution of food and the importation of food by the Grain Marketing Board inhibits the ability of the private sector to play a role in importing food. Similarly, unrealistic exchange rates in which the official exchange rate is less than 10 percent of the parallel exchange rate makes the entire process of importing food products on a private basis very, very difficult.

There is no question that the food supply situation is not going to improve. The harvest has just come in a month ago, it's been progressively depleted and may just last for three months. We can see the people of Zimbabwe suffering and likely to suffer more, and we would like to help them. The government, though, does have a role to play, but certain policies have contributed substantially to the shortage of food. So it's important that they change their policies that are contributing to these problems.

Q: What role is the US government playing to alleviate Zimbabwe's food shortage?

A: We are a contributor to the World Food Programme, and WFP in turn uses NGOs to distribute the food around the country. We have been the single largest contributor to WFP providing maize meal. We are also about to start bi-lateral food distrubution directly through the [NGO] World Vision.

Q: How critical is the need for food aid in Zimbabwe?

A: It's very serious at the moment. I do not see at the moment the sorts of critical indicators of severe malnutrition that I used to see when I served as ambassador to Angola. But given the fact that the harvest has just come in and it is expected to last only several months, all expectations are that the crisis will grow dramatically and within three months or so there might be as many as six million people facing severe food shortages.

Q: If the food security situation does not improve in the next few weeks what do you think will happen?

A: Well there is no question that the food security situation is not going to improve. The harvest has just come in a month ago and has been progressively depleted. It's probably only going to last for three months and then the country becomes totally dependent on imported maize in particular. So the situation is going to get worse. The international community is certainly increasing its assistance, but the needs are going to be dramatic.

Q: Are donors holding back to punish Zimbabwe for its political problems?

A: We try to seperate [the issues] and help the people of Zimbabwe. We see the people of Zimbabwe suffering and likely to suffer more and so we want to help them. The government, though, does have its role to play and certainly its policies have contributed substantially to the shortage of food. So it's important that they change their policies that are contributing to the shortage of food and we will do our part as well.

[ENDS]

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