WASHINGTON, DC -- The controversy over genetically engineered crops is disrupting U.S. efforts to provide food aid to starving people. The government of Zimbabwe and citizens groups in Bolivia, Guatemala and Nicaragua are resisting U.S. supplied foods that contain transgenic corn, or maize.
At the World Food Summit in Rome this week, U.S. officials promoted biotechnology as a solution for world hunger. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) announced a Collaborative Agricultural Biotechnology Initiative at the summit that, it says, will help developing countries access and manage biotechnology to reduce poverty and hunger.
But despite hunger approaching widespread starvation, at least one recipient country is rejecting genetically engineered foods.
A U.S. donation of 10,000 tons of corn, or maize, intended for Zimbabwe was sent elsewhere in May because because it came in the form of whole kernels, which, if used as seed, could spread genetically modified varieties of maize across the country.
About half of Zimbabwe's 12.5 million people face famine, due to a combination of political manipulation, drought and floods, a UN team reported last month.
But when the government of Zimbabwe did not waive its requirement that entering commodities must be certified as entirely of non-GMO, not of genetically modified origin, the maize was reallocated to Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia, the U.S. Embassy in Harare said in a statement May 30.
Zimbabwe did accept an additional 8,500 metric tons of corn meal and corn-soy milk. U.S. contributions to Zimbabwe's food crisis now total 42,930 metric tons with a value of US$27.5 million, the embassy said.
In testimony Thursday before the House International Relations Committee, USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios said the agency is seeking to persuade Zimbabwe to accept genetically modified corn.
"USAID's Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance believes that unless the government of Zimbabwe will waive its restrictions on the import of U.S corn, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. government to respond to the extensive food requirements that have been identified," said Natsios, who has just returned from the World Food Summit in Rome.
In Bolivia, the citizens group Forum on Environment and Development found genetically engineered Starlink corn, which is prohibited for human consumption in the United States, in a bag of USAID corn soy flour.
In cooperation with Friends of the Earth, the group commissioned DNA tests on a USAID supplied maize soy flour mixture that was distributed to El Alto, Bolivia through the City Department of La Paz. The group acquired a sample of the corn soy blend in February 2002 and obtained DNA test results in early June indicating the presence of StarLink.
The tests also showed two varieties of corn that are not approved for human consumption in the European Union - Roundup Ready and Monsanto's BTExtra. The samples were analyzed at Genetic ID, an independent laboratory located in Iowa.
The San Francisco based watchdog group Pesticide Action Network said this is the first time that StarLink has been found in food aid, and the first time it has been found outside the U.S., Japan and Korea since originally detected in the United States in August 2000.
The manufacturer of StarLink corn, Aventis, was not able to prove to the satisfaction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the pesticidal protein Cry9C in StarLink is not an allergen, and the company was forced to take tons of its product off the market in September 2000.
The Pesticide Action Network reported Thursday that tests commissioned by a Guatemalan citizens group, Colectivo Madre Selva, found three varieties of engineered corn not approved in the European Union - Liberty Link produced by Aventis and Monsanto's BtXtra and RoundUp Ready - in seed sent as food aid.
Victor Campos from the Humboldt Center, a Nicaraguan environmental group affiliated with Friends of the Earth International, and Ana Quiroz from Nicaragua's Center for Health Information and Advisory Service, oppose sending food to Nicaragua that people in other parts of the world avoid.
Campos said, "It is unacceptable that the children of Nicaragua are consuming genetically modified products that come masked as food aid for our country. It is well known that baby food companies in the U.S. and Europe do not use genetically modified products. Nevertheless, our highly vulnerable condition has been used as an opportunity to send products that children in developed countries do not consume."
The U.S. Agriculture Department (USDA) maintains that there is no need to separate genetically modified crops from traditional crops at harvest because genetically modified crops are perfectly safe. But even if U.S. officials were to be convinced of the need to donate only foods with no genetically modified components to relieve hunger, it may not be possible to do so.
Scientists in the United States and the European Union have confirmed that the containment of genetically modified pollen is not possible.
As Ohio State University ecologist Dr. Alison Snow told the USDA Advisory Committee on Agricultural Biotechnology at a StarLink corn hearing in November 2000, "We really don't know the limits of how far corn pollen can go, and I think what's going to happen as the hybrid seed that was made this year is tested is we're going to find StarLink pollen in a lot of the non-genetically modified corn because of pollen drift."
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