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Update on Africa and biotech crops

by Craig Winters
Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods, http://www.thecampaign.org

(Thursday, Aug. 29, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- Nearly 13 million people in six African nations - Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Zambia - are facing starvation because of the worse food crisis in a decade.

The United States has offered to ship in genetically engineered corn (maize) to help alleviate the problem.

Three of the countries - Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland - have accepted the genetically engineered corn. Zimbabwe and Mozambique accepted the corn only after it was agreed that it would be milled to prevent it from being planted and potentially cross-pollinating with native varieties.

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has refused to accept the genetically engineered corn stating, "We would rather starve than get something toxic."

The U.S. has a surplus of corn because many countries around the world do not want to buy it. Besides not wanting genetically engineered corn, they are concerned that U.S. corn is contaminated with the StarLink variety, a form of biotech corn not approved for human consumption.

Although originally planted in less than one half of one percent of the total acreage of corn, approximately ten percent of U.S. corn is now contaminated with StarLink DNA. StarLink corn cross-pollinated with other varieties, dramatically reducing the international market for U.S. corn. Most of the surplus U.S. corn is being fed to livestock.

Below are two articles discussing Zambia's rejection of the biotech corn. The first is from the front page of Wednesday's Los Angeles Times titled "Zambia Rejects Gene-Altered U.S. Corn." The second was from an Associated Press article a few days ago titled "Zambia Rejects U.N. Food Appeal."

  • Zambia Rejects Gene-Altered U.S. Corn
    Africa: Millions face starvation, but the government cites safety fears for refusing grain.


    Los Angeles Times
    August 28 2002

    SHIMABALA, Zambia -- After waiting seven hours under the sizzling African sun, John Shikuboni hoped to fill his empty sack with free corn stored in a warehouse here.

    But an aid official told Shikuboni and about 200 other hungry men, women and children that he could no longer distribute the corn because the Zambian government had ruled that the genetically modified grain was not safe for them.

    "Please give us the food," pleaded an elderly blind man wearing a threadbare shirt. "We don't care if it is poisonous because we are dying anyway."

    Many Zambians in rural areas have resorted to eating leaves, twigs and even poisonous berries and nuts to cope with the worst food crisis in a decade hitting southern Africa. Still, their government is refusing to accept donations of genetically modified corn that the United Nations and aid agencies say could help ease the starvation and suffering of about 2.5 million Zambians.

    The United States, United Nations and humanitarian aid groups insist that the U.S.-donated corn is safe and identical to grain eaten daily by people in the United States, Canada and other countries. But Zambian officials say they fear that the gene-altered corn poses health risks to their citizens.

    "We would rather starve than get something toxic," said Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who declared a food emergency in the nation three months ago.

    Privately, aid officials say the Zambian government is looking a gift horse in the mouth.

    The Bush administration has dispatched to Zambia its top aid official, Andrew Natsios, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, to persuade Mwanawasa to accept the food.

    Natsios is expected to meet with Mwanawasa today in Lusaka, the Zambian capital.

    "I'm going to tell him he needs to reverse that decision," Natsios said in a telephone interview. "It's endangering people's lives, and we're going to have massive losses of life if this policy remains in place."

    A savage confluence of events--drought, bad governance and disease--means that about 13 million people in six southern African countries face starvation. Many of them now rely on rations from the U.N. food agency to survive.

    U.N. officials say they must have $500 million to avert a famine. So far, the United States has been the most willing donor, shipping a few hundred thousand tons of food to southern Africa.

    But the U.S. gifts have ignited a debate in the region about the safety of grain whose genes have been modified to produce higher yields and bolster resistance to drought, diseases and herbicides.

    Southern Africa is not alone in its suspicion of genetically modified food. The European Union bans many modified products, and some European scientists say the crops could cause allergic reactions in consumers.

    Leaders of several African countries say they find themselves in a dilemma: Feed their people food they believe causes allergic reactions, or let them die. Agricultural officials also worry that the grain would be planted and, through cross-pollination, would contaminate their natural varieties.

    Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland agreed to accept the U.S. donations after the World Health Organization--and several U.S. agencies--certified the U.S. corn as safe. Zimbabwe and Mozambique accepted the grain on the condition that it would be milled before distribution to prevent people from planting it.

    But Zambia--a landlocked nation slightly larger than Texas--has been the lone holdout, saying its top scientists had warned about the alleged health risks of gene-altered corn. The country's agriculture minister said Zambia would import non-altered food to feed its hungry.

    "There's no way we can help them if they don't accept the food," James Morris, director of the U.N. World Food Program, said from his Rome office Tuesday night. "No one is going to step up with donations of non-GM [genetically modified] corn to fill the gap. This is food we have complete confidence in."

    Despite the official skepticism in Zambia and other countries, some prominent African scientists have been lobbying for African nations to embrace genetic engineering to secure the food supply and increase efficiency and crop yields.

    "GM crops and foods are just one part of the overall strategy to ensure sufficient food" for Africa, said Jennifer Thomson, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. "Europe has enough food. They don't need GM foods. But we have different needs."

    Natsios, the USAID administrator, said he recently was heartened by the Zambian government's decision to let aid workers distribute genetically modified corn to Congolese and Angolan refugees living in camps here.

    He said the Zambian government is probably trying to use the gene-altered corn issue to gain leverage in its relations with the United States. He noted that the United States greeted Mwanawasa's election last year with a lukewarm response after the opposition and other groups alleged that the balloting was rigged.

    For the good of starving Zambians, Natsios said, Mwanawasa "needs to separate the diplomatic issue from this [food] issue."

    In Shimabala, a farming village 40 miles south of Lusaka, Shikuboni and others say they hope the government swiftly reverses its policy.

    Only recently, Shimabala was a bountiful collection of farms producing maize, cassava and other crops. But the drought has reduced the corn fields to parched brown earth with only a few dying shrubs.

    Steven Grabiner, a food aid official, said the thousands of bags of food in his warehouse could feed Shimabala's 300 families for at least a month.

    "I would rather eat that maize than die because the government has no alternative to the hunger problem," said Bweengwa Nzala, a 28-year-old farmhand. "The government was elected by us the people, and now we are hungry. We want the government to help feed us instead of forcing us to resort to eating wild fruits like monkeys."

    "We are not afraid," said Florence Chisanga, who also waited in vain at Grabiner's food distribution center. "If we die tomorrow, no problem. What we want is food."

    Times staff writer Maharaj reported from Nairobi, Kenya, and special correspondent Mukwita from Shimabala.

  • Zambia Rejects U.N. Food Appeal

    .c The Associated Press

    JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) - Zambia has rejected a U.N. appeal to distribute genetically modified food, saying it would procure enough other grain to feed its starving people.

    Aid agencies estimate that almost 2.5 million Zambians are in danger of starvation if they do not receive urgent aid.

    ``We have the situation under control,'' Zambian Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana said Saturday. ``We don't need to engage the biotechnology at this stage. We are assisting (hungry people) with help from well-wishers and are overwhelmed by the response.''

    Zambia has refused to accept donations of genetically modified food and has said the food may be a health risk. It has also expressed concern that Zambians may try to plant the biotech grains of cereal, contaminating the country's crops that are not genetically modified.

    The major U.N. food and health agencies - the World Food Program, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization - released a policy statement Friday saying as far as they were concerned genetically modified foods were safe.

    ``There is no way that the World Food Program can provide the resources to feed these starving people without using food that has some biotech content,'' spokesman James Morris told reporters.

    But Sikatana said the safety of the grain remained unproven.

    ``We cannot be so irresponsible so as to risk the lives of innocent people,'' he said in a telephone interview. ``We have measures in place to cover (food needs for) the period up to the next harvest.''

    Zambia is concerned genetically modified food may be putting at risk trade with the European Union and other countries that have strict rules on biotech crops.

    ``If we engage in GM our exports will be thrown overboard (and) that will cost thousands of jobs,'' Sikatana said. ``We know that the situation is critical (and) we know that we are making sufficient efforts to ensure nobody will starve.''

    On Wednesday the U.S. State Department called on the European Union ``to join us in assuring governments in the region that food made from biotech crops is safe and should be distributed immediately to those who so desperately need it.''

    The EU's executive commission put out a statement Friday backing the U.S. position that the food was safe, while adding that it was ``up to beneficiary countries to make an informed decision on whether to accept'' the biotech food.

    The United Nations estimates 12.8 million people in Zambia and five other Southern African countries - Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland - urgently need help to avoid mass starvation caused by erratic weather and exacerbated by government mismanagement in some