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The continuing GMO quagmire. (Editorial).

Fourteen million southern Africans are on the verge of starvation, but Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe recently refused a shipment of American food aid because it contained genetically modified corn. The often abstract biotech debate now has life-and-death implications, as African officials have been forced to weigh the long-term integrity of their national food supplies against the short-term imperative to prevent people from dying.

These nations have argued that the engineered corn could contaminate their domestic corn diversity through cross-pollination, as hungry farmers who have already eaten their seed supply would likely use some of the aid grain for planting. Such contamination would disrupt corn export markets to European and other nations that ban genetically modified crops (GMOs).

There are two obvious ways out of this stalemate, and officials were working towards resolution as this issue went to press:

* The United States could mill the grain to prevent planting.

* The United States could--like most other donor nations--purchase and distribute food produced in Africa (even in a famine year, several African countries will have exportable surpluses). Instead, U.S. food aid dumps American crops, which does little to bolster struggling agricultural economies.

U.S. refusal on both fronts is not surprising. Acknowledgement of the African nations' concerns would call into question the integrity of American technology, American regulatory agencies, and the products of American agriculture. Since virtually all of the grain and beans harvested in the United States are commingled with engineered varieties, if other regions of the planet join Europe in rejecting these foods, American agribusiness would quickly see its export markets evaporate. Dumping this grain in Africa would make that continent's acceptance of the technology a biological reality.

"We may be poor and experiencing severe food shortages," said Zambia's President Levy Mwanawas, "but we aren't ready to expose our people to ill-defined risks." What we do know already is that the genes that bioengineers insert do not always behave as planned. For example, soybeans engineered to tolerate herbicides are more susceptible to heat stress and certain fungal diseases. Government regulators can rarely anticipate the complex ecological and health effects, particularly as biotech companies begin field trials of crops engineered to produce pharmaceuticals or industrial chemicals.

For several years, wary scientists, environmentalists, consumer groups, and people interested in protecting crop diversity around the world have called for a moratorium on further planting of genetically engineered crops until regulatory structures have a chance to catch up, until society better understands how the technology acts in the field, and at least until contamination can be prevented. While biotech promoters argue that the international spread of contamination renders such calls obsolescent, political quagmires like the one playing out in Africa make the need for a moratorium all the more urgent.
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Author:Halweil, Brian
Publication:World Watch
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Nov 1, 2002
Previous Article:A day at the beach.
Next Article:The paradox of Biophilia. (Note from a World Watcher).

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