ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

7 January 2003


Heed the Hungry
Kevin Clarke, U.S. Catholic, Vol 68, Issue 1, January 1, 2003

Forcing genetically modified food on unwilling people makes us corporal dorks of mercy. HIV, hunger, and drought are proving a lethal triumvirate throughout southern Africa. The climate has turned cruel, crops are failing, and many African subsistence farmers are too sick to work. The U.N. estimates that more than 14 million people may be confronting starvation in the coming months.

Under such dire circumstances, it's hard to understand why some African nations are resisting the in-the-nick-oftime appearance of food aid from the United States. The U.S. Agency for International Development is offering mega-tons of corn to Africa's hungry. Trouble is the Africans aren't sure if the U.S. largesse arrives as a white knight or a white blight.

The Americans want the desperately poor to accept a product some corporations in the U.S. are desperate to get rid of: genetically modified corn. GM food is outlawed in the European Union and Japan and would likely prove a hard sale in the U.S. if labeling laws allowed consumers to find out about the Frankenfoods they were putting in their mouths.

The Africans are worried about the safety of the GM corn and the possible contamination of their existing corn strains through unsupervised planting and hybridization from pollen drift. Such widespread genetic pollution has allegedly already occurred in the genetic heartland of corn, southern Mexico.

"There is much evidence for cynicism about American intentions" when it comes to emergency food relief, says Raj Patel, a senior analyst for Food First. Such efforts in the past have had the long-term effect of diminishing Africa's ability to feed itself. It's fair to wonder who really is the beneficiary of these shiploads of GM food aid: hungry Africans or American corporations hungry to open new markets. Africans are right to question an aid program that promises to turn the continent into a vast lab experiment or "accidentally" introduce a commodity that would have been rejected otherwise.

The South African Bishops' Conference has called for a regional moratorium on test plantings of GM crops. In a recent letter, they wrote: "The long-term health effects of consuming [GM] food have not been assessed .... Moreover, the damage to the environment would be largely irreversible. Once released, genetically engineered organisms become part of our ecosystem."

Some countries, including Zimbabwe and Malawi, have only reluctantly accepted milled GM corn after a great deal of pressure from U.S. officials. The food aid has been rejected outright by officials in Zambia, despite the fact that as many as 2.5 million Zambians are facing a hunger crisis.

My grandmother emigrated from a little island nation near Great Britain that knew a lot about great hungers. "Beggars can't be choosers" was an expression she often deployed, a turnof-phrase that best characterizes the churlish response of the U.S. state department to Zambia's anti-GM stance.

But in this era we don't have to treat the Zambians like beggars, and we do have a choice when it comes to establishing an effective relief program that will feed the hungry while respecting the long-term interests and sovereignty of the nations we say we want to help. Rather than clearing out-at tax payer expense-warehouses full of GM corn that U.S. exporters can't sell in the developed world, USAID could have responded to this crisisand still can - by buying up and distributing regional surpluses in Africa, says Patel. That approach would have brought relief to the hungry, supported theregional economy, and protected the health of southern Africa's people and ecosystem without all the unseemly diplomatic touting for a hitech model of food production that the rest of the world simply has no desire to accept as its own.

"Our mortality and our weakness of judgment together warn us not to take irreversible actions ... during our brief stay on this earth," Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew write in the Common Declaration on Environmental Ethics. "We have not been entrusted with unlimited power over creation, we are only stewards of the common heritage."

We are stewards of a common agricultural heritage that is being put at risk in the name of the poor and the hungry in Africa. Surely they already have enough burdens without being asked to carry that additional responsibility on behalf of the likes of Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland.

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