ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

31 July 2002


Food stocks are running out across Southern Africa: by March 2003 the numbers of people facing starvation will be: 6 million in Zimbabwe
3.2 m. in Malawi
2.4 m. in Zambia
over .5 m. in Mozambique


"It is highly unethical not to just cover the costs for milling," said Thompson, the Arizona professor. "Tell me how much it costs to drop one bomb on Afghanistan. Who is starving whom here?"


Starved for Food, Zimbabwe Rejects U.S. Biotech Corn

Washington Post
By Rick Weiss
July 31, 2002

Thousands of tons of U.S. emergency food aid destined for crisis-stricken Zimbabwe has been diverted to other countries, and a new shipload may be diverted within days, because the donations include genetically modified corn that the Zimbabwean government does not want to accept.

The image of a nation on the brink of starvation turning down food because it has been genetically engineered has reignited a long-smoldering scientific and political controversy over the risks and benefits of gene-altered food.

Some biotech advocates are criticizing the Zimbabwean government for balking at the humanitarian assistance, saying President Robert Mugabe seems to care more about his political independence than his citizens' lives. About half of Zimbabwe's 12 million residents are on the verge of famine because of drought and political mismanagement, according to the United Nations.

But other scientists and economists say the troubled African nation has good reason to reject the engineered kernels. If some of the corn seeds are sown instead of eaten, the resulting plants will produce gene-altered pollen that will blow about and contaminate surrounding fields.

That could render much of the corn grown in Zimbabwe -- a nation that in most years is a major exporter -- unshippable to nations in Europe and elsewhere that restrict imports of bioengineered food, because of environmental and health concerns.

The United States could save lives and avert a potential ecological crisis by paying to have the corn kernels milled before they enter Zimbabwe, several experts said this week. But relief officials said U.S. food agencies typically don't cover milling expenses, which are estimated at $25 per metric ton -- a significant expense for a nation so poor.

That response has fueled suspicion among some observers in the United States and Africa that Washington is using the food crisis to get U.S. gene-altered products established in a corner of the world that has largely resisted them.

"The U.S. is using its power to impose its view that modified maize is not a danger," said Carol Thompson, a political economist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, who has spent much of the past 10 years in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe and five other southern African nations -- Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia -- face widespread food shortages after two years of drought and floods. The U.N. World Food Program has said the region will need 1 million metric tons of food aid in the next few months, Only a fraction of that amount has been promised by donors so far.

The first shipload of U.S. food aid for Zimbabwe -- a landlocked nation that is the hardest hit of the affected countries -- arrived at a Tanzanian port in June. It was carrying about 10,000 metric tons of corn from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

But the corn, which in Africa is known as maize and is valued by agencies at about $95 a metric ton, was not welcome. Like most corn stores in the United States, the shipment was a mix of conventional varieties and high-tech kernels bearing bacterial genes to protect against insect pests.

The Zimbabwean government, which for decades has supported the development of corn varieties suited to local ecosystems, is concerned not only about genetic contamination, but also about intellectual property issues. Pending changes in international trade rules, backed by the United States, could preclude farmers from saving the patented seeds from biotech harvests for replanting in following years, a practice vital to many subsistence farmers who cannot afford to buy new seed every year.

"If these crops get in, then farmers basically lose their rights to their own agricultural resources," said Carole Collins, senior policy analyst for the Washington-based Africa Faith and Justice Network.

Moreover, some European countries want to ban imports of cattle that have been fed engineered corn, posing another potential trade problem for Zimbabwe if engineered kernels were to swamp the country.

When notified of the June shipment, officials told the United Nations that, although the country was not absolutely rejecting the aid, it preferred that the corn be milled first so no seeds could be planted.

That response got to the U.N. two days after World Food Program officials decided to unload the kernels and ship them to Malawi, said Judith Lewis, the program's regional director for southern and eastern Africa. Malawi is among the poorest of southern African nations and does not have a firm policy on gene-altered food.

Now a second ship of Zimbabwe-bound U.S. corn has arrived, this time in the South African port of Durban. It includes 17,500 metric tons of corn kernels, and USAID wants a decision from Zimbabwe by tomorrow, Lewis said. Zimbabwean officials discussed their options yesterday without reaching a decision, and were scheduled to have further meetings today.

USAID representatives have expressed frustration with this and previous situations like it. When India balked over a humanitarian shipment of gene-altered food, one U.S. official was quoted as saying, "Beggars can't be choosers."

At a news conference in Johannesburg on Friday, Roger Winter, USAID's assistant administrator for humanitarian assistance, suggested that Zimbabwe had little choice if it wanted to feed its people. "We have no substitute for that maize. That maize is what's available," he said.

Indeed, very little nonengineered corn is segregated from high-tech varieties during the U.S. harvest, and that portion sells at a premium to organic food processors and others.

Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization, said Zimbabwe was using the food to play politics.

"I think the Zimbabwe government is using this to show its muscle against the United States and other Western countries because of the criticism the president has been receiving from outside," Pinstrup-Andersen said, referring to widespread criticism of Mugabe's recent land-reform policies and accusations of government cronyism. "I think it is irresponsible . . . unless they know they can get enough food from elsewhere that is not genetically modified."

Mugabe has said he is being prudent. "We fight the present drought with our eyes clearly set on the future of the agricultural sector, which is the mainstay of our economy," he told Zimbabwe's parliament on July 23. "We dare not endanger its future through misplaced decisions based on acts of either desperation or expediency."

Neil E. Harl, a professor of economics at Iowa State University, agreed that much was at stake. "Pollen drift is a real problem, especially with maize," Harl said. "It places these countries in an extremely difficult position."

He and several other experts recommended that the United States pay for milling costs. "It is highly unethical not to just cover the costs for milling," said Thompson, the Arizona professor. "Tell me how much it costs to drop one bomb on Afghanistan. Who is starving whom here?"

Asked if people were going "too far" by saying that gene-altered humanitarian exports were part of a strategy to spread the crops around the world, Harl said: "I'm not sure that is going too far."

U.S. government and biotech representatives vehemently denied any such collusion.

"I don't think there is any justification to make claims like that," said Rob Horsch, director of global technology transfer for Monsanto, the St. Louis biotech giant that owns the rights to many biotech crop varieties. Although the company has used private detectives to identify and prosecute U.S. and Canadian farmers it suspects of saving patented seeds, that policy would be adapted to accommodate local traditions in other countries, Horsch said.

USAID officials also rejected the notion that they were strong-arming Zimbabwe or had any agenda other than feeding the needy.

With food shortages increasing every day, some U.S. officials said late yesterday that they believed Zimbabwe was on the verge of accepting the corn.

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