TCS Daily


'Better Dead Than Fed'?

By John Reifsteck - October 15, 2002 12:00 AM

I grow poison on my farm, feed it to my family and sell it to unsuspecting consumers in the U.S. and around the world.

That's what the president of Zambia seems to think. As 3 million people in his country face starvation, Levy Mwanawasa has let some 15 million metric tons of donated corn sit untouched in storage because some of it is genetically modified.

My farm is right along the Illinois Central Railroad, which means a lot of what I grow is transported down to the Gulf of Mexico and shipped abroad. Some of the warehoused corn Mwanawasa has labeled "poison" and "intrinsically dangerous" may have been harvested on my property.

Millions of starving people ought to inspire concern and compassion among national leaders, but in Zambia the fear of biotechnology has trumped all other sentiments. "I'm not prepared to accept that we should use our people as guinea pigs," says Mwanawasa.

Good news, sir: You don't have to. Americans have been growing and eating biotech crops for years - about one-third of all the corn grown in the United States has been genetically modified, mostly to resist pests and reduce sprays.

Biotech crops have survived tough regulatory scrutiny in the United States; there isn't a kernel of evidence suggesting that they're unhealthy. My corn relies on the manipulation of natural toxins that we consume routinely in other foods. It doesn't even taste different.

Recently the United Nations said that 14.4 million people in southern Africa are threatened by drought-induced starvation, up from an earlier estimate of 12.8 million. The leaders of Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland have had the good sense to accept aid that includes biotech corn.

Zambia, however, is not alone in blocking the donations. Zimbabwe is home to nearly half of the famine victims, and recently it agreed to accept assistance - but only if the corn is milled first, so that local farmers can't plant the seeds. At a cost of $25 per ton, this is not an inexpensive requirement and it will keep food from the mouths of the hungry. Mozambique shares this unwise policy.

Europe is a driving force behind this resistance. It hasn't imported any corn from the U.S. since 1998 because some of our farmers use forms of genetic modification that have not yet cleared all of the European Union's regulatory hurdles. By refusing our donations, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe are looking ahead to a day when they enjoy an export market once more.

At least the Europeans aren't starving. For them, a slow-moving bureaucracy is a luxury they can afford. It also has become a convenient tool for protectionists who are less concerned with preserving consumer health than manipulating public opinion about biotechnology and shielding special interests from free trade.

For Africans, however, agricultural biotechnology is a matter of life and death. Instead of a "poison," it's an antidote to the terrible problem of hunger. On my own farm, genetically modified corn has allowed me to boost my yield by 5 to 10 percent, which means I'm using the same amount of land to feed a growing number of people.

Nobody has invented a drought-resistant form of corn - at least not yet. Incredible developments are nevertheless on their way. In Iowa, a handful of "pharmers" are experimenting with biotech corn to produce a medicine that will help treat children suffering from cystic fibrosis.

That's all in the future. Today, the people of southern Africa simply need to be fed and biotech crops are a safe and economical way of helping out.

But Africans deserve more too: Their farmers should have access to the best farm technology available. They shouldn't just take our biotech-corn handouts - they should have the freedom to plant it themselves. Of the 54 countries in Africa, only the government of South Africa has clear rules permitting and encouraging farmers to grow biotech crops.

Above all else, however, Africans deserve something other than a perverse, anti-scientific philosophy that declares, "Better dead than fed."

John Reifsteck is a farmer in Champaign, Illinois and a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology.
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