Famine, Fears Spark Debate Over Biotech Food

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, August 30, 2002 (ENS) - Drought and famine stricken nations in southern Africa should not reject donations of genetically modified food, officials from the United States, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization argued this week. The statements come in response to recent decisions by Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe to reject offers of U.S. aid due to concerns about biotechnology.

Addressing a press conference today at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Dr. Jacques Diouf, director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said that 13 million people are estimated to be in need of food assistance in coming months to avoid widespread starvation in the region.


Hungry boy in Zambia (Photo courtesy IFRC)
Countries in Southern Africa whose populations are facing a devastating drought should carefully consider current scientific knowledge before rejecting food aid containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), said Diouf.

He noted that there are currently no international agreements in force covering trade and aid involving food containing GMOs. An ad hoc committee of Codex Alimentarius, the joint FAO-WHO Food Safety body, is working to develop appropriate standards.

"In the meantime, the important thing is that all donated food meets the food safety standards of both the donor and recipient countries," Diouf said.

On Tuesday, World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland told a meeting of health ministers from 10 southern African countries that based on current scientific knowledge and information from a variety of sources, the consumption of foods containing genetically modified organisms now being provided as food aid in southern Africa was not likely to present human health risk.

"WHO is not aware of scientifically documented cases in which the consumption of these foods has had negative human health effects," she said at the meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe. "These foods may therefore be eaten."

Brundtland was attending a meeting of senior WHO officials and regional health ministers to discuss the growing food crisis in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, where as many as 14 million people face severe food shortages over the next six months. Several of these countries have rejected donations of GM maize and other commodities containing GM ingredients, and contracted with agencies and nations for shipments of non-GM food.

Brundtland said that although WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had not undertaken any formal assessment of GM foods, the two organizations were confident that the principal country of origin had applied established national food safety risk assessment procedures.

"We know, for example, that GM foods are eaten by people in other regions: these foods are no less safe for people here in Africa than they are for people who eat them in other parts of the world," Brundtland said.


These Zambian women have walked 50 kilometers (30 miles) to the Zimbabwean border to sell water to truck drivers in an effort to raise cash to buy food. (Photo WFP/Brenda Barton)
She added, however, that the ultimate responsibility and decision regarding the acceptance and distribution of food aid containing GMOs rested with the governments concerned.

"The WHO believes that in the current crisis, governments of countries in southern Africa must consider carefully the severe and immediate consequences of limiting the food aid that is made available for the millions of people so desperately in need," Brundtland added.

Many African officials are concerned that GM crops and food products have not undergone adequate testing to ensure that they are safe for human consumption. As some food aid is provided in the form of seed for future crops, some nations are also concerned about the potential for genes from GM crops to spread into native seed stocks, and the potential for native farmers to become dependent on biotechnology companies for additional patented GM seed.

Dr. Diouf today recognized concerns about potential risks to biological diversity and sustainable agriculture. In the specific case of maize, which was known for its propensity to outcross, governments could consider using techniques such as milling or heat treatment to avoid inadvertent introduction of genetically modified seed, he said.

On Tuesday, critics of GM food aid released a letter signed by 126 groups from around the world in "solidarity with southern African nations" in rejecting crops altered with biotechnology. They groups accused the United States - source of most of the GM food aid - of using "coercive techniques" to introduce GM crops into African nations.


This genetically engineered barley carries a gene that may help the plants resist attack by barley yellow dwarf virus. (Photo by Jack Dykinga, courtesy U.S. Agricultural Research Service)
"The United States' Department of State is clearly using emergency food aid shipments for starving people in southern Africa as a political tool to force acceptance of genetically modified foods," the letter reads. "This exploitative policy makes it clear that the United States is not interested in staving off famine. The United States is forcing the people of southern African nations to accept genetically modified food aid or risk widespread starvation, and has been unwilling to listen to the legitimate concerns."

The United States has responded to the southern Africa food crisis by pledging almost 500,000 metric tons of food aid, some of which may include GM foods that are produced and consumed in the United States.

Food aid "provides a handy market for dumping grain not wanted elsewhere," the letter continues, "and is a thinly disguised attempt to pollute the sub continent's grain stocks with patented genetically modified varieties."

The groups, which include the Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security in India, the South Australian Genetic Food Information Network, the Green Association for Environmental Action in China and the African Federation of Women Entrepreneurs in Ghana, among others, seek a global boycott of GM food products from the United States.

The letter also urged government officials now meeting at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, to reject any declarations that assert that GM foods will be a solution to world hunger.


Plant physiologists prepare to harvest tubers from genetically engineered potato plants. (Photo by Ken Hackman, courtesy U.S. Agricultural Research Service)

Many of those officials have visited African nations facing famine on their way to the Summit, which runs from August 26 through September 4.

Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), visited Zambia and Malawi on his way to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa this week. While he was in Zambia with a delegation of humanitarian relief experts, Zambia President Levy Mwanawasa informed Natsios that his nation would not accept GM food aid.

In an interview with a State Department staff writer on Thursday, Natsios charged that small advocacy groups from developed nations - but not from the United States - have launched a campaign of disinformation regarding the risks of GM foods.

"It's very disturbing to me that some groups have chosen a famine to make a political point," Natsios said. "I have never seen, in my 30 years of public service, such disinformation and intellectual dishonesty."

"I think it's appalling," Natsios added. "It's frightening people into thinking that there is something wrong with the food, and the consequence is that it's slowing the famine relief effort down in a very disturbing way."


A malnourished child is dwarfed by a ruined cereal crop in the Gambia. (Photo by Y. Muller courtesy FAO)
Today, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman echoed Natsios' sentiments in a statement from Washington DC.

"Our ability to deliver desperately needed food has been greatly hindered by individuals and organizations that are opposed to biotechnology and who are providing misguided statements about the U.S. food system," Veneman said. "It is disgraceful that instead of helping hungry people, these individuals and organizations are embarking on an irresponsible campaign to spread misinformation and create an atmosphere of fear, which has led countries in dire need of food to turn away safe, wholesome food."

Veneman noted that the latest figures from the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) project that 13 million people are on the brink of starvation in southern Africa, and current food aid pledges will meet only a quarter of the anticipated need.

"Now is not the time to inflame the debate about biotechnology," Veneman said. "Now is the time to feed starving people," she said, noting that the food the U.S. has donated is no different from what most Americans eat every day.

"The U.S. regulatory process ensures that people around the world have access to a safe, reliable food supply," Veneman argued.


About half the soybeans planted in the United States now come from genetically modified seeds. (Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy U.S. Agricultural Research Service)
However, many of the groups that signed the letter supporting African concerns about GM foods are American, and there is considerable concern within the United States regarding the safety of GM crops, both for human consumption and for the environment.

In fact, a May 2002 report by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted that genetically engineered (GE) crops have not lived up to their economic promise. Most of these crops cost more to plant, an impact that is supposed to be offset by increased yields and a reduced need for pesticide applications.

But according to the May report, in some cases, particularly herbicide resistant soybeans, GM crops actually yield a lower harvest than their conventional counterparts. Other GM crops have been shown to require more pesticides - not less.

"Perhaps the biggest issue raised by these results is how to explain the rapid adoption of GE crops when farm financial impacts appear to be mixed or even negative," the report states.