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Food that starving people won't eat

(Monday, Sept. 9, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

- George B. Pyle, Chicago Tribune, September 2, 2002: 'Poor countries foolish to turn down genetically modified produce'

The president of Zambia says his nation would "rather starve" than feed genetically modified corn to its people. Presidents, of course, are seldom hungry. But they do risk being deposed, sometimes violently, by people who are. So when the government of Zambia recently said "thanks but no thanks" to much-needed food aid that was to contain more than 50,000 tons of genetically modified corn from the United States, it was one of the most significant pieces of evidence that the rest of the world has not joined the United States in its unquestioning acceptance of what the British call "Frankenstein foods."

The Zambian story has received next to no coverage in the American press. Which isn't surprising, given that it hasn't given much attention to the larger story--the pending famine in six southern African nations. And given that Americans and their media, generally, have been lambs to the slaughter when it comes to accepting genetically modified everything in our diets.

The Zambia story has been of somewhat more interest in Britain and the rest of Europe, where resistance to GM foods has also been strong. So strong, in fact, that the London-based newspaper The Guardian recently reported that St. Louis-based Monsanto Co., which is on the cutting edge of agricultural biotech, has basically given up on having GM crops accepted anywhere in the European Union before 2005. If ever.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, long a friend of GM technology, is now in favor of a face-saving "national debate" that will give him cover for reversing his view. Blair's Cabinet ministers are doing the BBC chat-show circuit, vowing not to be pressured, or "bounced," as Environment Minister Michael Meacher put it, into accepting GM foods.

Whether it is corn that produces its own bug killer, soybeans that stand up to a certain brand of weed killer or beef laced with growth-stimulating hormones, Europeans are refusing to grow or eat stuff that Americans blithely, and blindly, consume every day. In response, America is pulling out all the stops, including complaints to the World Trade Organization, to pressure Europe to accept the genetically modified foods American companies and American farmers produce.

It's a position that infected the last administration as well as the current one. A note on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Web site, left over from the Clinton administration, says that it is the department's mission "to facilitate the marketing of bioengineered products in both the domestic and international markets."

Toward the end of his run, Clinton Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman was heard to comment that investing economic and diplomatic capital pushing products that people just don't want can be a real waste. No such common sense thinking has been heard from anyone in the Bush administration.

While biotech products now in commercial use supposedly increase yields and/or cut costs for American farmers, the big promise of biotech has been to help feed the truly hungry of the world, such as those in Africa. Those who favor the technology argue that it is elitist in the extreme for well-fed Europeans, and the few Americans who seem to care, to deprive the truly hungry of a chance at rescue.

The current statement by the Zambian government is a case of a nation that is not awash in surplus grain raising questions about GM foods. Of course, Zambia announced that it had found a source of non-GM corn to replace that offered by the U.S., so that stark choice may be put off for a while.

Also swept under the rug, for now, is the new UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, the one that points out yet again that hunger is a factor of economics and distribution, not production. The one that says GM crops may someday show some potential for making marginal land productive--if and when all the health and safety concerns are dealt with.

Zambia can still say it doesn't want GM corn. Two of its neighbors, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, can still say that they will accept it if it is already milled.

All three, obviously, are not worried about the danger of anyone eating GM corn so much as they are about the possibility that their farmers, who still hope to make a comeback into the international market, will plant some of it, contaminate neighboring fields with GM pollen, and get the whole continent's output banned from the European market.

Just as many of America's products are now.

---- George B. Pyle is a director of The Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute. He is writing a book about the advantages of small-scale agriculture over the industrial model of food production.