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3-Food: Zambia chooses principle over U.S. corn

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TITLE:  Zambia Chooses Principle Over U.S. Corn
SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, USA, by 
DATE:   Nov 24, 2002

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Zambia Chooses Principle Over U.S. Corn

'People are hungry and gene-altered food is turned away; yet the situation 
is not simple'

It's sitting there in warehouses right now: tons of corn from the American 
heartland, ready for distribution to hungry people.

Although the Republic of Zambia desperately needs relief from a widespread 
famine, these particular sacks of grain are being kept under armed guard 
against looting until aid workers can ship them to other needy countries. 
The corn is genetically modified. Some of its golden kernels contain a gene 
from a certain bacterium that imbues the plant with a powerful bug killer 
to combat insect pests on the farm.

In the U.S., consumers eat this variety of corn all the time, along with 
similarly modified soybeans and other staple foods. An estimated 70 percent 
of the products on U.S. supermarket shelves are derived in part from 
genetically engineered ingredients, all judged safe by the nation's 

But following the lead of the European Union, Zambia does not welcome 
modified crops, even when they're donated. Under conflicting pressure from 
the U.S. to accept the stuff and from the EU to think twice about it, 
Zambia has decided to look elsewhere for its food. Its decision comes in 
the midst of an unfolding crisis in drought-stricken southern Africa, where 
aid workers warn that as many as 14 million people face food shortages 
between now and the next harvest in March.

"Food is being taken out of the country, and the famine is really getting 
bad," said Charles Vincent of the United Nations World Food Program. "It is 
getting worse by the day. We've gone out of our way to find [non-modified] 
food, and we've found some, but the needs are so enormous, it's very 

Backlash of suspicion. On the face of it, the government's position looks 
to be entirely indefensible. What sort of cruel and corrupt regime would 
put lives at risk by refusing a commodity that Americans consume every day?

Actually, the Zambians have their reasons. And their reasons ought to give 
pause to the U.S., which is pushing its genetically modified crops on an 
uncertain world. The mess in Zambia could be repeated elsewhere, as a 
technology once touted as a necessity for feeding the hungry masses 
inspires a backlash of suspicion and political infighting. Along with the 
impoverished folks caught in the middle, the losers in this sad situation 
include American farmers confronted with a global marketplace that 
considers their crops, to some degree, contaminated.

For their part, the Zambians say this is not a case of "better dead than 
biotech fed," as their critics assert. The government is "quite confident" 
it can purchase non-modified grain from outside the U.S. in sufficient 
quantities to avert disaster, said Walubita Imakando, charge d'affaires at 
the Zambian Embassy in Washington. "With that belief, I suppose the 
decision is justified," he said. "Some feel it was not the best decision 
for people faced with hunger. But on the other side, people believe hunger 
is not the reason to shelve your principles."

Make no mistake, local politics shaped this decision too. Zambian President 
Levy Mwanawasa would lose credibility with his supporters if he suddenly 
backed away from his inflammatory statements earlier this year against 
modified food. More broadly, the EU has signaled that any country intending 
to export food to its rich markets should keep its fields clear of modified 
crops. One of the government's worries is that Zambian farmers will plant 
the engineered corn, compromising the prospects of future generations in a 
nation with much unrealized agricultural potential.

So why not just grind the corn? That way, farmers can't plant it, and 
people still can eat it. The mill-it-first solution worked for Malawi and 
Zimbabwe, which also expressed reservations about accepting U.S. food aid. 
Yet Zambia has maintained its resistance, and its rationale should not be 
dismissed out of hand.

Can't confirm safety. After Mwanawasa's initial objections, a team of 
Zambian scientists toured the U.S., Europe and South Africa on a fact-
finding mission, then reported back to their leaders that the facts were 
incomplete. "The scientists could not confirm the food is safe," Imakando 

What about all the Americans who eat it with no apparent ill effects? "You 
need to test the food under Zambian conditions before the government gives 
it a stamp of approval," he said. In a typical American diet, genetically 
modified corn appears in many foods, but usually in small quantities 
overall. In the impoverished areas of Zambia where the threat of famine is 
most severe, cornmeal forms as much as 90 percent of the diet, Imakando 

Add to that the terrible scourge of AIDS in the same regions, and the 
potential increases for unanticipated health consequences, he said. "Don't 
you think side effects would be multiplied many times over in a community 
where immunity is compromised by malnutrition and exacerbated by HIV?"

In his estimation, no one can answer that question for sure. And in the 
absence of what they consider sufficient proof, the Zambians are embracing 
a policy known as the "precautionary principle," which is the gospel on 
this issue in EU political affairs as well. That standard calls for 
restricting the use of any new technology potentially posing a threat to 
human health or the environment while additional evidence is gathered, even 
if no problem has yet emerged.

Of course, the food-rich Europeans can afford such a cautious policy. 
Zambia is taking plenty of heat for going the same way, including from some 
Europeans. Former James Bond actor Roger Moore, who toured a particularly 
hard-hit part of the country earlier this month, pronounced the situation 
"very alarming" and urged the government to accept the U.S. food.

After first ignoring the issue, the EU is getting involved too. It donated 
about $15 million for Zambia to buy corn on commercial markets, while at 
the same time urging the country to take the U.S. aid. Giving new meaning 
to the term mealy mouthed, European officials told the Zambians what 
everyone already knows--that Western scientists have found "no evidence" of 
health hazards in the modified corn "they have looked at."

Signs of pragmatism. Even UN aid workers who publicly recognize the 
government's right to refuse the aid have pushed back a little. Earlier 
this month, the UN distributed U.S. corn at a half-dozen sites in Zambia, 
contrary to national policy, saying it had no alternate food stocks 
available. Even before that, the Zambians gave the OK to feed the corn to 
refugees--additional evidence that the government is more pragmatic than 
its critics suggest.

To Charlene Barshefsky, the former U.S. trade representative who is now a 
consultant and attorney in private practice, the situation in Zambia is 
"heartbreaking," and she foresees no simple solution. "They can probably 
source [unmodified] grain, but it's going to be harder than they think," 
she said. "They'd rather have famine than what we produce. That's very 
scary. The signals are emanating from Europe that countries should not use 
this food, even though their scientists agree with our scientists that the 
food is safe."

Indeed, American farmers could become even more isolated. As long as 
genetic modification of food remains a potent political issue in Europe, 
where many consumers say they don't want it, the prospects are poor for a 
trade settlement. As Barshefsky said: "No trade agreement in the world can 
force people to buy." Or even take the stuff for free.


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