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Debate over GE-Tainted
Food Aid Rages in Africa

Christian Science Monitor
August 06, 2002

Even hungry Africa wary of gene-modified food
A shipment of grain sits in South Africa as 12 million people in the region
face shortages.

By Nicole Itano | Special to The Christian Science Monitor

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA ­ Under a grass-thatched shelter just off the main road
that heads east from Lusaka, Josephine Musopelo waits with neighbors for the
return of her husband. Two days ago, he left for Zambia's capital city, some
35 miles away, in search of food for his hungry village.

People here remember the yellow corn distributed seven years ago during the
area's last major drought, and Mrs. Musopelo's husband has gone to find its
source. In Southern Africa, where most people eat white corn, the yellow
variety is considered animal feed, not fit for human consumption. But
Musopelo is desperate.

"If we eat this pitiful stuff," she says, gesturing at a bag of small fruits
the family has been pounding into mash for the children, "we will eat
anything."

But will they eat genetically modified (GM) corn? That's the question her
country's leaders are hotly debating as a shipment, partially filled with GM
corn, sits 1,000 miles away in a South African port.

Until now, the scientific debate over the risks, and benefits, of GM foods
was something fought over largely in the streets of Paris and the dinner
tables of Iowa. Suddenly, it is a life and death decision for ordinary
Zambians, and it threatens to derail international efforts to avert a famine
in Southern Africa. The governments of countries like Zambia find themselves
in the difficult position of either accepting a technology into their
country before they have determined if it's safe, or turning away grain that
could save lives now.

The US has offered to provide half of what Zambia needs to feed those who
are hungry , and one-third of what is needed regionally. At least some of
that is corn that has been genetically modified.

Although none of the seven African countries targeted for emergency food aid
has officially said they will reject American aid, at least one shipment of
food has already been diverted from Zimbabwe, in part due to GM concerns.
Several other countries are seriously considering turning away the food.
Zambia's president, Levy Manawasa, said last week that despite its need, his
country would not accept American food aid if it cannot be proven safe.

People have been selectively breeding crops for thousands of years to
improve yields or adapt plants to new environments. New technology now
allows the genes from one organism to be inserted into another.

But the technology is controversial. Some scientists, particularly in
Europe, worry that GM food could cause allergic reactions in humans or that
it could pollute the environment by cross pollinating with natural
varieties. Others say it could provide the solution to feeding the world's
hungry by making plants that are drought and pest resistant.

On the streets of Lusaka, where much of the debate is fueled by
misinformation and public hysteria, people are primarily concerned about
whether the food will make them sick.

In a poor rural settlement on the outskirts of Lusaka, George Chilumbo is
skeptical of the help pouring in for the estimated 2.3 million people in
Zambia, and more than 12 million regionally, tottering on the edge of
starvation. Mr. Chilumbo doesn't understand the details of genetic
modification. All he knows is that some people think the food could be
dangerous.

"We think that if we eat that food, bad things could happen to us, like
cancers could grow in our stomachs," he says, to the nods of his friends. "I
would rather starve than eat that food."

Since there is thus far no evidence that GM foods have a harmful effect on
people, and Americans have been eating it for some time, those fears are
likely to be superceded by the immediate need for food.

"What I personally find so disturbing about this whole GM debate is the fact
that we've been eating it for the past five years," says Allan Reed,
director of the United States Agency for International Development in
Zambia. "For someone to say that this food is being dumped, or that it has
been rejected by the United States, is simply not true."

Even before the aid debate put genetic modification in the headlines,
farmers here have been bitterly divided over the issue. Some, like those in
the cotton industry, say its introduction is necessary to keep them
competitive in the international market. Others in the country's growing
organic export market worry that allowing GM crops into the country could
close the European Union (EU) market to them. They fear that GM crops will
either mix with their own or, at the very least, hurt their image among
anti-GM European consumers.

"You can understand the Zambian officials' concern because on one hand
donors and others are telling them, 'Look, you've got to improve your
agriculture by going for niche markets like the organic market,'" says Rob
Tripp, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute. "On the other
hand there's a real fear that they could get cut out of these markets in
places like the EU, which are creating increasingly strict GM regulations."

Lovemore Simwanda, who is leading the investigations into GM food for the
Zambian National Farmers Union, worries the food shortage is forcing the
country to make a decision on GM too quickly and without the proper
information.

"The American government wants to push us into accepting this," he says.
"They think we've got hunger and that we're going to be forced into
accepting their food and ultimately GM."

One potential short-term solution is to mill the corn before distribution,
since one of the main concerns in Zambia is that seed intended as food aid
will be hoarded and planted next year, potentially affecting local maize
crops with GM strains.

Namibia has milled grain for several years due to GM concerns. But such a
solution is expensive ­ as much as $25 per metric ton ­ and could cause
delays in getting the food to people already living on the edge.
Additionally, some United Nations officials privately say such a move is
opposed by the United States which fears such a compromise implicitly
acknowledges a problem with the food.

Even if it is not milled, the American aid poses little threat to Zambia's
crops, say experts. American corn is specifically bred for the conditions in
the Midwest and is unlikely to thrive in Zambia. Many experts say GM corn is
likely already present in Zambia since South Africa is one of the largest
producers of GM food in the world and a major trade partner with Zambia.

The GM debate hasn't yet filtered down the road towards Malawi where Mrs.
Musopelo and her neighbors are waiting for help. They don't understand what
a gene is or how parts of one plant can be inserted into another. There are
no words in their language for such technologies. All they knows is that
their families are hungry.

"Our survival depends on help from outside," says Mrs. Musopelo's neighbor,
Michael Simwinga. "If you don't assist us, our children and ourselves will
die."

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