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
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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