Genetically engineered maize.
Perhaps because the US donation was an ultimatum: "eat our
unwanted genetically engineered food or die." Perhaps because
Mwananwasa knows that the future of his country's agricultural
production is at stake.
Where does Greenpeace stand on this? According to the Bush
administration and industry propagandists, it is the
environmentalists who are holding a gun to the heads of the
starving. Not so. We say that as long as supplies of
non-genetically engineered grain exist, nobody should be forced to
eat genetically engineered (GE) grain against their will. If the
choice really was between GE grain and starvation then clearly any
food is the preferable option -- but that's a false and cynical
picture of the choice in this situation.
The Bush administration has joined up with industry to paint a
picture of ghoulish green devils whose environmental principles are
insensitive to the needs of humanity. But is the US government
acting out of concern for the starving of Africa, or acting on
behalf of a multinational industry with a sales and image problem?
Genetically engineered organisms are not being forced upon Africa
because there is no choice. They're being forced on Africa because
the US can't sell them abroad, has an economic interest in reducing
its grain surplus, chooses to deny the existence of non-GE grain
supplies, and is developing a deep imperial disdain for the
opinions and laws of other countries which contradict their own
Exploiting the hungry
The worldwide rejection of American GE crops has saddled the US
government with increasing surpluses of corn and soy. Since 1996,
the US has been subsidising exports by dumping these genetically
engineered surpluses into the UN World Food Programme (WFP).
WFP policy helps smooth the way for the US because,
astonishingly, it isn't currently obligated to tell its 83
recipient nations whether their food aid contains genetically
modified organisms (GMOs) or ingredients derived from them. Yet
many poor nations have GMO bans, and they have clearly demanded
advance warning about genetically engineered imports.
Disgracefully, hunger and desperation have become the Genetic
Engineering industry's best tools to penetrate the developing
world's food supply. They bet that starvation will overcome many
"developing" countries' resistance to genetically engineered food.
And not only will these people eat genetically engineered grain,
they will inevitably plant them, even if it violates their
While the potential impacts of these artificial organisms on
human health cannot be dismissed, an even greater danger lies is
the contamination of natural species and the high likelihood of
unforeseen and potentially disastrous consequences on food supply.
"Safe zones" which remain GMO-free are prudent and profitable now.
They may someday be the only way back from a disastrous,
uncontrolled experiment gone wrong.
What's at stake for Zambia
Zambia made a brave choice to preserve their agricultural heritage
and its future. But their resistance to GMOs will prove futile if
the country and its neighbours find their conventional crops
polluted by genetically engineered organisms.
The government of Mexico learned this lesson the hard way. They
too took a cautious approach and forbid the planting of genetically
engineered maize. But they did import such maize from the US for
food, and some of the grain distributed as food aid was illegally
planted by campesinos in need of seed. Researchers later discovered
that genes from the genetically engineered maize had crossed over
to conventional plants, contaminating Mexico's globally important
centre of diversity for maize. Centres of origin and centres of
diversity such as this are the genetic wells from which breeders
draw on old varieties to create new ones. They are places where the
natural genetic future of a crop is still unfolding - places where
we should not be writing experimental lines into unique copies of
the source code.
Africans fear genetic contamination because they can trade on
the GE-free value of their grain and organically-raised livestock.
Profitable EU markets could evaporate if the slightest GE
contamination rears its head.
While starvation may be Southern Africa's greatest immediate
threat, GE foods are still an unknown quantity when it comes to
health safety. American consumers have served as unwitting guinea
pigs for years, but scientists are still debating how to adequately
test GE foods for safe human consumption or monitor for effects. No
long-term studies exist, and particularly none that consider the
weakened state of a malnourished population.
The research picture is even murkier when it comes to
understanding the effects of genetically engineered organisms on
animals and the environment. Already we have seen major ecological
threats from GE crops, with few if any studies appropriate to
Southern Africa's subtropical ecosystems.
Yet over the next six months, GMO-laced US supplies will make up
at least half of World Food Programme food aid to thirteen million
Southern Africans facing severe food crisis. In addition to hunger
and AIDS epidemics, these stricken populations may someday add
environmental costs of genetic pollution and financial loss of
exports to their list of woes.
Starving people still deserve the dignity of choice. The US should
follow in the European Union's footsteps
and allow aid recipients to choose their food aid,
buying it locally if they wish. This practise can stimulate
developing economies and creates more robust food security. Ample
non-GE maize is now available and the Zambian government should be
permitted to use aid dollars to buy it. Imported food aid should be
only the last resort.
If Africans truly have no other alternative, the controversial
GE maize should be milled so it can't be planted. It was this
condition that allowed Zambia's neighbours Zimbabwe and Malawi to
In the current storm of controversy, one wouldn't guess that
clear rules for moving GMOs around the planet already exist -rules
violated by the current traffic in GE food aid. Food aid
organisations must wake up to the Biosafety Protocol, the UN treaty
that obligates signing nations to assess the impact of these crops
before they import them. On top of that, the parties to the London
Convention on Food Aid have consistently noted that it is
preferable to provide monetary resources, rather than aid-in-kind,
to support regional buying of appropriate foodstuffs. These are
options that must be provided to the southern African governments
in this time of crisis.
Ever since Zambia's president had the audacity to suggest that
he wasn't going to trade away his country's agricultural integrity
to the GE industry unnecessarily, pro-GMO interests have launched a
vigorous propaganda war. Their target is anyone who suggests that
genetically engineered organisms have no place in food aid. Their
accusation? That the fears of environmental campaigners about
genetic engineering are resulting in starving people in Africa
It's a lie and part of a consistent strategy to convince the
world that genetic engineering is the answer to the world's hunger
problems. It's not. World Hunger is simply being used as the answer
to the Genetic Engineering industry's image and marketing problems.
Real solutions to hunger are being developed and practiced
sustainably by small farmers all over the world as Greenpeace and Oxfam's
Farming Solutions website shows. The real victims of the GE
industry's PR strategy are the very people whose interests they
pretend to have at heart - the worlds most vulnerable people who
are being abused to market an unwanted and dangerous