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Posted by Lilly from ? ( on Thursday, August 08, 2002 at 12:14PM :

In Reply to: on transgenic crops & developing nations posted by Lilly from ? ( on Thursday, August 08, 2002 at 12:09PM :

Nature 418, 571 - 572 (8 August 2002)

Africa hungry for conventional food as biotech row drags on


[LONDON] Famine-relief efforts in drought-stricken southern Africa are this week trapped in the increasingly bitter and polarized global argument over the acceptability of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Most attention has focused on Zimbabwe's decision earlier this month to accept a shipment of GM maize (corn) sent as a gift by the United States only if it was first milled and therefore could not be planted. Previously, it had refused the shipment altogether.

Zambia, Namibia and Mozambique are also to varying degrees resisting the importation of transgenic crops.

But as hundreds of thousands of people face starvation in the coming months, the diverse disputes on food aid reflect a broader impasse between Europe and the United States over the perceived safety of transgenic crops. The aid is usually donated as a gift or in the form of loans or grants to purchase food from the donor country.

Some aid officials accuse international, non-governmental aid organizations of stirring up unfounded concerns in Africa about transgenic foods.

The aid organizations and African government officials counter with the argument that the United States is using this crisis to force African countries to accept transgenic agriculture when they lack the means to independently assess the risks it may pose to the environment and to health.

Zambia is still in negotiations with the United States about a major loan from Washington tied to the purchase of US-grown GM maize. As is common with much foreign aid, most food aid from the United States comes in the form of loans to buy food from US farmers. Mozambique has an official policy of accepting only GM-free maize, as has Namibia. But Malawi has accepted free US food without raising any concerns, as have Lesotho and Swaziland.

"People here are following the global debate on GM crops and are concerned that not much is known," says Mwananyanda Lewanika, a biotechnologist at the National Institute for Scientific and Industrial Research in Lusaka, Zambia. "We can't introduce GM technology without a biosafety regulatory framework in place. Until then we would prefer to buy crops from where we know they are GM-free, even if they are more expensive."

The African nations are also concerned that their future chances of exporting their own crops to Europe could be damaged if the GM grain delivered as food aid were replanted and entered the food cycle. Many European food manufacturers refuse to accept GM food, owing to consumers' dislike of the technology. Even fewer are likely to accept it if new rules come into effect that require the labelling of foodstuffs containing GM ingredients (see Nature 418, 114; 2002).

"African countries now face new export hurdles because of regulatory uncertainty in Europe," says Calestous Juma, a development expert at Harvard University. "The issue is not about whether GM crops are safe or not. It is about the urgent need to agree on a predictable and non-discriminatory trading regime for GM products."

US officials claim that they could not give countries GM-free crops even if they wanted to, as US farmers do not routinely segregate GM and non-GM crops, except for the organic market.

Critics of the US aid strategy contend that it exploits the crisis by depriving the African countries of the chance to decide whether or not they want the technology. "Accepting GM technology now could stop these countries getting back on their feet in the long term," says Hannah Crabtree of the UK charity ActionAid.

Some aid officials working in Africa claim that the Zambian government is being encouraged by European aid groups to reject the US loan.

"I think it is absolutely irresponsible unless they put their money where their mouth is and come up with non-GM food," says one aid official, who asked not to be named. "I don't have the nerve, heart or soul to deny, as a precautionary principle, food to people who are hungry right here, right now. It is a debate that only America and Europe can afford because they have food."

The World Food Programme, the United Nations agency responsible for coordinating food aid, has so far received only a quarter of the US$507 million of food aid that it has requested for the region.

Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2002 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Lilly
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