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US on GE-Tainted Food Aid-
"Beggers Can't Be Choosers"

Starved for Food, Zimbabwe Rejects U.S. Biotech Corn
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 31, 2002; Page A12

Thousands of tons of U.S. emergency food aid destined for crisis-
stricken Zimbabwe has been diverted to other countries, and a
new shipload may be diverted within days, because the donations
include genetically modified corn that the Zimbabwean government
does not want to accept.

The image of a nation on the brink of starvation turning down food
because it has been genetically engineered has reignited a long-
smoldering scientific and political controversy over the risks and
benefits of gene-altered food.

Some biotech advocates are criticizing the Zimbabwean government
for balking at the humanitarian assistance, saying President Robert
Mugabe seems to care more about his political independence than
his citizens' lives. About half of Zimbabwe's 12 million residents
are on the verge of famine because of drought and political
mismanagement, according to the United Nations.

But other scientists and economists say the troubled African nation
has good reason to reject the engineered kernels. If some of the
corn seeds are sown instead of eaten, the resulting plants will
produce gene-altered pollen that will blow about and contaminate
surrounding fields.

That could render much of the corn grown in Zimbabwe -- a nation
that in most years is a major exporter -- unshippable to nations
in Europe and elsewhere that restrict imports of bioengineered
food, because of environmental and health concerns.

The United States could save lives and avert a potential ecological
crisis by paying to have the corn kernels milled before they enter
Zimbabwe, several experts said this week. But relief officials said
U.S. food agencies typically don't cover milling expenses, which are
estimated at $25 per metric ton -- a significant expense for a
nation so poor.

That response has fueled suspicion among some observers in the
United States and Africa that Washington is using the food crisis
to get U.S. gene-altered products established in a corner of the
world that has largely resisted them.

"The U.S. is using its power to impose its view that modified maize
is not a danger," said Carol Thompson, a political economist at
Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, who has spent much of
the past 10 years in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe and five other southern African nations -- Lesotho,
Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zambia -- face widespread
food shortages after two years of drought and floods. The U.N.
World Food Program has said the region will need 1 million metric
tons of food aid in the next few months. Only a fraction of that
amount has been promised by donors so far.

The first shipload of U.S. food aid for Zimbabwe -- a landlocked
nation that is the hardest hit of the affected countries --
arrived at a Tanzanian port in June. It was carrying about
10,000 metric tons of corn from the U.S. Agency for Interna-
tional Development (USAID).

But the corn, which in Africa is known as maize and is valued
by agencies at about $95 a metric ton, was not welcome.
Like most corn stores in the United States, the shipment was
a mix of conventional varieties and high-tech kernels bearing
bacterial genes to protect against insect pests.

The Zimbabwean government, which for decades has supported
the development of corn varieties suited to local ecosystems,
is concerned not only about genetic contamination, but also
about intellectual property issues. Pending changes in
international trade rules, backed by the United States, could
preclude farmers from saving the patented seeds from biotech
harvests for replanting in following years, a practice vital to
many subsistence farmers who cannot afford to buy new
seed every year.

"If these crops get in, then farmers basically lose their rights
to their own agricultural resources," said Carole Collins, senior
policy analyst for the Washington-based Africa Faith and
Justice Network.

Moreover, some European countries want to ban imports of
cattle that have been fed engineered corn, posing another
potential trade problem for Zimbabwe if engineered kernels
were to swamp the country.

When notified of the June shipment, officials told the United
Nations that, although the country was not absolutely rejecting
the aid, it preferred that the corn be milled first so no seeds
could be planted.

That response got to the U.N. two days after World Food Program
officials decided to unload the kernels and ship them to Malawi,
said Judith Lewis, the program's regional director for southern
and eastern Africa. Malawi is among the poorest of southern
African nations and does not have a firm policy on gene-altered
food.

Now a second ship of Zimbabwe-bound U.S. corn has arrived, this
time in the South African port of Durban. It includes 17,500 metric
tons of corn kernels, and USAID wants a decision from Zimbabwe
by tomorrow, Lewis said. Zimbabwean officials discussed their
options yesterday without reaching a decision, and were scheduled
to have further meetings today.

USAID representatives have expressed frustration with this and
previous situations like it. When India balked over a humanitarian
shipment of gene-altered food, one U.S. official was quoted as
saying, "Beggars can't be choosers."

At a news conference in Johannesburg on Friday, Roger Winter,
USAID's assistant administrator for humanitarian assistance,
suggested that Zimbabwe had little choice if it wanted to feed
its people. "We have no substitute for that maize. That maize
is what's available," he said.

Indeed, very little nonengineered corn is segregated from
high-tech varieties during the U.S. harvest, and that portion
sells at a premium to organic food processors and others.

Per Pinstrup-Andersen, director general of the International
Food Policy Research Institute, a Washington-based non-
governmental organization, said Zimbabwe was using the food
to play politics.

"I think the Zimbabwe government is using this to show its
muscle against the United States and other Western countries
because of the criticism the president has been receiving from
outside," Pinstrup-Andersen said, referring to widespread
criticism of Mugabe's recent land-reform policies and
accusations of government cronyism. "I think it is irresponsible
. . . unless they know they can get enough food from elsewhere
that is not genetically modified."

Mugabe has said he is being prudent. "We fight the present
drought with our eyes clearly set on the future of the
agricultural sector, which is the mainstay of our economy,"
he told Zimbabwe's parliament on July 23. "We dare not endanger
its future through misplaced decisions based on acts of either
desperation or expediency."

Neil E. Harl, a professor of economics at Iowa State University,
agreed that much was at stake. "Pollen drift is a real problem,
especially with maize," Harl said. "It places these countries
in an extremely difficult position."

He and several other experts recommended that the United
States pay for milling costs. "It is highly unethical not to just
cover the costs for milling," said Thompson, the Arizona
professor. "Tell me how much it costs to drop one bomb on
Afghanistan. Who is starving whom here?"

Asked if people were going "too far" by saying that gene-altered
humanitarian exports were part of a strategy to spread the
crops around the world, Harl said: "I'm not sure that is going
too far." U.S. government and biotech representatives
vehemently denied any such collusion. "I don't think there is
any justification to make claims like that," said Rob Horsch,
director of global technology transfer for Monsanto, the
St. Louis biotech giant that owns the rights to many biotech
crop varieties. Although the company has used private
detectives to identify and prosecute U.S. and Canadian farmers
it suspects of saving patented seeds, that policy would be
adapted to accommodate local traditions in other countries,
Horsch said.

USAID officials also rejected the notion that they were strong-
arming Zimbabwe or had any agenda other than feeding the
needy.

With food shortages increasing every day, some U.S. officials
said late yesterday that they believed Zimbabwe was on the
verge of accepting the corn.

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