Environmentalists to Africans: Drop Dead
October 10, 2002
by Dennis T. Avery
The administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, says environmental groups are endangering the lives of millions of famine-threatened Africans to further their baseless campaign against genetically modified foods.
An estimated thirteen million people are at risk of severe hunger this year because of the southern African drought. Natsios just returned from Zambia, where more than two million people are threatened by drought-induced famine—but the Zambian government refuses to accept American corn because some of the grain is genetically modified to help it compete with insects and weeds.
Eco-groups, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, are intensively lobbying in Zambia and the other famine-stricken African countries against U.S. corn. Mozambique is also refusing the U.S. corn, but Malawi, Lesotho, and Swaziland have accepted it with no apparent concern.
Natsios says the eco-groups are “using big-time, very well-organized propaganda, the likes of which I have never seen before” in twelve years of American-led famine-relief efforts. The USAID administrator told the Washington Times that the eco-activists “can play these games with Europeans, who have full stomachs, but it is revolting and despicable to see them do so when the lives of Africans are at stake.”
About 17,000 tons of donated U.S. corn already arrived in Zambia. TV news clips show crowds of hungry Zambians trying to get the donated grain, but Zambian government officials fear that political opponents will demonize the corn among voters. They are more afraid of losing votes than of famine deaths (which have traditionally been all too common in the region).
The government refuses to distribute the corn despite pleas from United Nations officials, and assurances from the World Health Organization that there is no evidence of any danger from the corn. The biotech corn has been approved for safety by three U.S. government agencies—and Americans have been eating it in their corn flakes and snack foods for more than a decade with no ill effects.
The World Food Program’s director, James Morris, says there is no way he can feed Zambia’s hungry without using the biotech grain. The United States, the largest food donor in the world and the largest exporter of corn, doesn’t segregate its biotech corn from conventional corn.
The African famine effort marks a “nuclear escalation” of the activists’ effort to demonize agricultural biotechnology. (They have not dared to assault the popular use of biotechnology in human medicine, where it has contributed important new drugs, diagnostic tools and therapies.) Until now, the eco-groups’ “Frankenfood” campaign hasn’t caused any hardships because it has centered in well-fed, farm-surplus Europe.
The campaign against biotech foods has achieved major-league status even though such foods have yet to cause even a skin rash. A high proportion of U.S. foods contain at least traces of biotech corn or soybean oil, and our meat and milk animals are fed with biotech grain and oilseed meals. (Seventeen Americans claimed they suffered allergenic attacks from StarLink corn, but tests found that none of them had antibodies for the unique protein in the corn.)
Meanwhile, crop researchers have been genetically engineering breakthrough varieties for the Third World. These include “golden rice,” which contains beta-carotene to prevent the severe Vitamin A deficiencies that kill or blind millions of poor-country kids each year, and salt-removing crops that can protect the 40 percent of the world’s food now grown on irrigated soils. (Meaning that the salt-threatened farms of the arid Muslim Middle East can be sustainable for the first time in modern history.)
In the Philippines, where tropical pest pressures are intense, the pest-resistant Bt corn to which Zambia objects produced half again as much corn per acre in test plots as conventional corn varieties on farmers’ fields. That means biotech corn can sharply increase the islands’ food security and radically reduce the cost of meat and milk for its children. Kenya has test plots of virus-resistant sweet potatoes that could yield fifty percent more food per acre for that densely populated country.
Greenpeace doesn’t care. Their anti-biotech campaign has rescued the organization from a severe funding crisis. (People figured the whales were already saved.) Thanks to the “Frankenfoods” campaign, the eco-group’s donations are up, food companies are quivering in fear, and Greenpeace is once again a political force. What’s a few million famine deaths among people who are likely to die young anyway?
The eco-activists’ loathsome fear campaign in starving Africa proves once again that they don’t care about real people, and cannot be entrusted with the real world.
This article appeared in the Knight-Ridder Tribune on September 3, 2002, and is reprinted with permission.
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.