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3-Food: Heed the hungry

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TITLE:  Heed the hungry
SOURCE: U.S. Catholic, USA, by Kevin Clarke
DATE:   January 2003

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Heed the hungry

Forcing genetically modified food on unwilling people makes us corporal 
dorks of mercy. 

The Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia distributes non-GM corn in Zambia's 
Luangwa Valley. 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-of-time 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 

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 

"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 turn-of-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 
crisis--and still can--by buying up and distributing regional surpluses in 
Africa, says Patel. That approach would have brought relief to the hungry, 
supported the regional economy, and protected the health of southern 
Africa's people and ecosystem without all the unseemly diplomatic touting 
for a hi-tech 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.

Kevin Clarke is the managing editor of online products at Claretian 
Publications in Chicago.


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