by Doreen Stabinsky

A famine currently threatens southern Africa. Over fourteen million people in six countries — Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho and Swaziland — are facing starvation due to years of domestic turmoil, a serious drought and subsequent failed harvests. International response has been swift; money, trucks, and food supplies are being donated to the region, and private and UN aid agencies are mobilizing to address the problem.

However, a large portion of world media’s coverage of the famine hasn’t actually been about the famine at all, but about the controversy surrounding genetically engineered (GE) food aid. At the center of the controversy is the U.S. insistence on sending GE maize — as corn is called in the rest of the world — to southern Africa, although most of the countries there have stated their preference for non-GE maize.

The U.S. has long used its food aid programs as a means of developing and expanding export markets for the nation’s agricultural commodities, and in other ways promoting U.S. foreign policy. In the words of the US Agency for International Development (USAID):

The principal beneficiary of America’s foreign assistance programs has always been the United States. Close to 80 percent of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) contracts and grants go directly to American firms. Foreign assistance programs have helped create major markets for agricultural goods, created new markets for American industrial exports and meant hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans.
Recent years have seen no exception to this, as GE- contaminated food from the U.S. has turned up in countries around the world, distributed by USAID and through the U.N.-affiliated World Food Program (WFP), the major recipient of U.S. food aid. Southern Africa is just the latest location where this political game is being played, as the US tries to get rid of its surplus crops. 

In contrast to all other countries providing aid to the region, only the U.S. is providing aid-in-kind (actual commodities). The U.S. is actually selling surplus wheat on the world market and using the proceeds to buy GE maize to ship to southern Africa, even though a number of the countries have requested wheat. But that’s a longer story. Aid organizations, including the World Food Program, prefer monetary donations to in-kind donations because of the greater flexibility cash affords. World Food Program spokesman Richard Lee notes:
All US aid to southern Africa has been in kind while all other donations have been in the form of financial aid. We prefer cash donations as they offer us greater flexibility and speed things up. Financial aid also brings much needed cash into the region.
Initially Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique all refused GE maize. But under US diplomatic pressure, three of the countries eventually acquiesced to accepting GE maize that was first milled (ground into meal). The principal concern of those governments was the potential biosafety hazard of transgenic maize seed being inadvertently planted and then contaminating local varieties and local production through cross-pollination or mixing of seed. They are especially concerned about maize intended for export, or used for feeding cattle that would then be exported to Europe. The European Union, which provides a crucial market for southern African agricultural exports, has strict policies against the importation of genetically engineered food.

Zambia has held fast in its rejection of GE food aid and has come under severe diplomatic pressure, as well as public pressure from mainstream US media, including The New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Those newspapers have sought to portray the Zambian president as an autocrat who would rather starve his people than feed them GE foods. Right wing think-tanks are also getting involved in the act.

The public relations nightmare of an African country refusing GE food in the midst of a famine is clearly too much for the U.S. to handle, and the U.S. government has increased pressure on the Zambian government to accept GE maize. Numerous reports have come out of private voluntary aid agencies — Oxfam, Intervision, Africare, and so on — that USAID is pressuring them to sign a statement in support of GE food aid. While the statement has not yet materialized, the fact that reports are coming from a number of quarters lends credibility to the story.

All this is happening because the U.S. refuses to acknowledge that GE foods are being segregated (separated from non-GE foods) domestically, and because it needs markets for its GE crops. The government, through USAID, has claimed that they do not have the ability to segregate GE crops and provide GE-free maize to the World Food Program. However, huge amounts of U.S. grain are segregated for export. And quantities of GE components, regularly found in testing of foodstuffs in the United States, are well below the amounts found in bulk commerce. It is clear that segregation is happening in the US, both for domestic human consumption and for export. 

Meanwhile, European markets for U.S. corn and soy have almost evaporated with the introduction of GE varieties and lack of segregation. Consequently, there is a need to redirect hundreds of millions of dollars worth of foodstuffs to less discriminating markets. The oversupply of U.S. corn may explain why the U.S. is so intent on sending genetically modified corn to southern Africa.

Do Zambians have a good case for refusing GE maize? Yes. Despite U.S. regulatory claims that these are the most rigidly tested foods to date, they are not even tested as carefully as pesticides. The maize being exported to Zambia is Bt maize, corn that has been engineered to contain the endotoxin protein of Bacillus thuringiensis. To test the toxicity of Bt maize, Monsanto produced large quantities of the toxin in bacteria, purified it, and administered it to mice by oral gavage — stuffing it directly into their stomachs. They tested ten mice. None of the mice died, and only superficial examinations of organs were conducted, after which regulators concluded that Bt maize is perfectly safe for human consumption. 

But many scientists, including the scientific steering committee of the Health and Consumer Protection Directorate of the European Commission, note that in cases where there are uncertainties about equivalence with a traditional counterpart — as is the case with the Bt endotoxin, which has no equivalent counterpart in the human food supply — the whole food should also be tested. It is suggested that the testing program include at least 90-day feeding studies in rodents, though additional toxicology studies may be necessary. The only feeding studies done with Bt maize for US clearance were in chicken and quail. Chicken were fed Bt maize for 38 days and they gained weight at the same rate as chicken being fed non-Bt maize. Similar results were obtained with quail. 

In evaluating the safety of a food product, it is also important to consider dietary uses. Though genetically engineered corn or its derivatives are present in a number of products consumed in the U.S., the amount of modified substances they contain is relatively low due to the segregation of the nation’s food supply. Contrast that with the diet of the average Zambian, for whom maize is a dietary staple. Many Zambians don’t even say that they’ve eaten unless they’ve had a serving of maize with their meal; they might eat maize three times daily. According to Charles Benbrook, former director of the National Academy of Sciences Board on Agriculture:
If regulatory authorities had felt that a sizeable portion of the populations of people consuming this corn would eat it directly (largely unprocessed) and that moreover, the corn might make up as much as half or two-thirds of daily caloric intake, they would NEVER have approved it based on the human safety data presented at the time. Anyone who claims that US and European regulatory reviews “prove” safety in the context of food aid to Africa is either ignorant of the factual basis of US and European regulatory reviews, or is willing to make some rather major assumptions.

In addition to health concerns, there is the larger question of choice in situations of food shortage. The countries of Africa have made their positions on GE crops quite clear to the world community over the last several years. The African Group was quite instrumental in securing a strong protocol on biosafety under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Under the protocol, exporters are required to gain advance agreement from importing nations for engineered organisms that are to be deliberately introduced into the environment. It was only due to the intransigence of the United States and its allies that a similar provision was not adopted for engineered organisms entering a country for food, feed or processing. But the sentiment of the African countries on this issue was quite clear.

The principal goal of the international community in times of famine should be to make sure people are fed. But, sadly, food aid has too often been used for political purposes. The U.S. government has been using food aid, and the World Food Program, to systematically introduce genetically modified organisms into countries around the world without notifying the importing governments. It has been up to citizen groups to test the imported products and publicize the results of those tests. In Ecuador, the government was forced to remove a controversial product from aid distribution; its importation was a violation of national law as the product was not approved for consumption in the country. In Nicaragua and Bolivia, food aid has been found to be contaminated with Starlink, a variety of GE maize that is not approved for human consumption in the United States.

Non-governmental organizations around the world are challenging the World Food Program in their role as distributor of surplus U.S. GE products — products rejected by consumers all over the globe. Agricultural commodity traders insist there is adequate non-GE maize in commercial channels to address the food shortages in southern Africa. Numerous countries have promised to sell non-GE maize to Zambia; in fact, the only countries in the world to export GE maize are the United States and Argentina. 

There are many unresolved questions about the safety of genetically engineered food. Furthermore, it is not right to disregard the social and cultural preferences of other people, even during times of crisis. The media spotlight should be directed first to the tragedy occurring in southern Africa, and then to the U.S. government’s outrageous attempt to exploit it.


Doreen Stabinsky, PhD, is a Professor of Environmental Politics at College of the Atlantic, Science Advisor for Greenpeace USA and Greenpeace International, and member of the CRG Board of Directors. Over the last two years, she has provided scientific testimony on genetic engineering to the Philippine Senate, the New Zealand Royal Commission Inquiry on Genetic Engineering, and the Indian Genetic Engineering Advisory Committee.

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