TCS Daily

Seedy Politics

By Kendra Okonski - September 5, 2002 12:00 AM

JOHANNESBURG - A raging debate over the use of agricultural biotechnology for producing food dominated the final days of the World Summit for Sustainable Development. The debate reached a low point when Zambian President, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa discussed food aid to his country saying, "We would rather starve than get something toxic."

An oncoming famine threatens poor southern Africans. And yet Mwanawasa has joined the leaders of several other poor southern African countries, including Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, refusing to accept food aid from the United States. Meanwhile, anti-biotechnology activists are cynically taking advantage of this famine, using the decisions of Mwanawasa and Mugabe to enhance their opposition to agricultural technologies that might help save lives and alleviate poverty.

Mwanawasa says that if he accepts food aid from the United States, his people will become lab rats for foods he considers unsafe. "Just because my people are hungry does not mean that I can give them poison," he said.

Though he admits that Zambians have consumed genetically modified products for the past six years without harmful consequences, Mwanawasa says that the absence of evidentiary harm is not the evidence of absence. So Mwanawasa decided that he would take "precautionary measures" to prohibit any food aid containing GMOs. His ban includes both government-to-government food aid and private imports.

The United Nations World Food Programme, the World Health Organisation, and other agencies told Mwanawasa on the 23rd of August that the foods were not likely to pose a human health risk. Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. AID went further, saying that advocacy groups from developed countries had promoted a disinformation campaign that was slowing relief efforts.

Zambia usually relies on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for scientific assessments of the safety of other consumer products. That's no surprise, since FDA rules are considered among the most scientifically rigorous in the world. In this case, however, he has decided that FDA certification is not good enough. Mwanawasa argues that nobody has proved that GMOs pose zero risk and that his own country lacks the scientific capacity to do so. When I suggested to him that it was impossible to prove zero risk - and that perhaps he should take into account the very real risk of starvation when making decisions about allowing food imports - he refused comment.

By demanding the impossible standard of zero risk, Mwanawasa is (perhaps unwittingly) applying the ludicrous principle of "precaution" in determining whether or not poor Zambians will get food that will keep them alive. Environmental extremists such as Greenpeace advocate this "precautionary principle".

But the development expert Indur Goklany has articulated a more reasonable interpretation of precaution - one that urges taking precautions against death. He argues that since agricultural biotechnology can increase food production and does not pose any known health risk when subjected to the kinds of tests applied by the FDA, it should be embraced wholeheartedly, especially by famine-stricken countries such as Zambia.

NGOs such as the Third World Network, the Consumers Association of Penang, and the Tebtebba Foundation have taken up the anti-biotechnology cause with great gusto. They were particularly active at the Summit, voicing their approval of 'traditional' agriculture, which they claim - against much evidence to the contrary - will be able to feed increasing numbers of people. In a letter of support for Mwanawasa, these NGOs say, "This decision was taken based on the precautionary principle; in the absence of national biosafety regulations and adequate capacity to carry out reliable risk assessments... and was also taken to protect Zambian agriculture production and prospects for exports."

Environmental NGOs supported by wealthy benefactors in Europe and the United States are supporting preconditions for a famine, denying starving Africans food they need to live. They are helping turn Mwanawasa's absurd arguments into tragic ones.

Kendra Okonski is a research fellow at International Policy Network in London.

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