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Letter to the Zambians

(Thursday, Oct. 3, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- The following is a letter that Dr. Charles Benbrook sent to Zambian scientists and policymakers who were in Washington D.C. last month to seek advice about whether to accept genetically modified corn.

September 13, 2002

Dear Distinguished Delegates from Zambia:

I am looking forward very much to a chance to visit with you via the phone on Friday afternoon. I apologize for not being able to get to Washington, D.C. to meet in person. I would have liked to do that very much, but it is a long way from North Idaho to the East Coast.

I am hopeful that your fact finding mission will convince you of a few key points, which should inform and guide your actions in the future as you deal with your country's unfolding food security challenges.

First, there is no shortage of non-GMO foods which could be offered to Zambia by public and private donors. To a large extent, this "crisis" has been manufactured (might I say, "engineered") by those looking for a new source of traction in the evolving global debate over agricultural biotechnology. To use the needs of Zambians to score "political points" on behalf of biotechnology strikes many as unethical and indeed shameless.

Second, if and when GMO corn is planted in Zambia, some degree of gene flow will occur to native varieties. There is universal agreement on this point now in the global scientific community. The more GMO corn planted, the more diverse its geographic spread, the faster and more complete the movement of transgenes will be into Zambian land races, i.e., your native corn varieties. Biotech advocates will argue that this is a good thing -- that Zambia is getting the benefit of "advanced" traits without having to pay for them. You should reject this silly notion. The movement of biotech traits into your varieties will almost certainly not be of practical benefit, since levels of expression and the consistency of expression will be inadequate to provide farmers with a meaningful level of insect control. Indeed, it is more likely that gene flow will create some unexpected, and under certain circumstances damaging, physiological growth problems, or perhaps impairment of natural plant defense mechanisms.

Third, the flow of genes into Zambian corn varieties will almost certainly be detectable. Once it becomes known that GMO corn is growing in Zambia, European and Japanese buyers will insist upon a system to certify that Zambian corn was not produced from GMO seeds. Putting such a system in place, while possible, will prove costly, and indeed even the United States has not been able to do so, except for the organic market sector.

Fourth, when the companies advanced Bt corn through the regulatory process in the U.S. and Europe in the early 1990s, it was known and understood that 98% plus of the corn would be processed or fed to animals.

If regulatory authorities had felt that a sizable portion of the populations of people consuming this corn would eat it directly (largely unprocessed) and that moreover, the corn might make up as much as half or two-thirds of daily caloric intake, they would NEVER have approved it based on the human safety data presented at the time. Anyone who claims that U.S. and European regulatory reviews "prove" safety in the context of food aid to Africa is either ignorant of the factual basis of U.S. and European regulatory reviews, or is willing to make some rather major assumptions. In the final analysis, Bt corn might prove to be just as safe to humans when eaten directly and making up a large percent of the diet, but today, no one can point to a solid set of scientific studies that support this conclusion. Put simply, these questions have not arisen before and have not been the subject of any research, to the best of my knowledge. Perhaps other experts or the U.S. State Department will be able to provide you with such studies.

Fifth, people in Africa who are suffering acute or chronic malnutrition may react to consumption of Bt corn, especially when minimally cooked and processed and present as a major share of their diet, in different ways than the average American or European has reacted to it, given how it has been incorporated in the food supply in North America and Europe. It is known that Bt corn may have adverse impacts on the stomach lining and that some potential food safety/allergenicity impacts are a function of gut bacteria and the overall health status of the GI tract. It is unlikely that any company or institution has carried out any research to determine whether these differences could translate into risks in Africa among the very hungry, risks that are both qualitatively and quantitatively distinct from those that might be expected in North America and Europe.

And sixth, the agronomic benefits of today's Bt corn varieties in the United States have been marginal, given that the target pest, the European corn borer (ECB) is an episodic pest in most corn growing regions and does not do much damage in most years. My research has shown that the premium price paid by farmers since 1996 for Bt corn seed varieties has been a poor investment averaged out across the whole nation. Where ECB levels have been high and consistent, Bt corn has clearly paid for itself. But on about two-thirds of planted acres each year, it clearly reduces per acre profits. The information and technology exists in the U.S. to target Bt corn to high-risk acres, but this approach is not compatible with biotechnology and seed company marketing and financial plans/objectives, and for this reason, this approach is the "road not taken." As Zambia looks to the tools of biotechnology to improve the productivity of your farming sector, it will be important for Zambians to define the needs and the ways that this technology can be used in order for Zambia to be, and remain the beneficiary of progress made.

I am sure your hosts in Washington will provide you copies of various reports that substantiate the above points. You will also find much information on our website, Ag BioTech InfoNet, http://www.biotech-info.net.

Thank you for the chance to share these views.

Dr. Charles Benbrook