- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2003

LONDON When British citizens began a public debate recently on genetically modified crops, the talk was of government indifference to the outcome.
But while this country's full-bellied citizens discuss the niceties of outcrossing and allergenicity, Africans are listening from countries where the issues are overshadowed by starvation. In the autumn, after consultations in Europe, one African country rejected American food aid that contained genetically modified corn.
British and European attitudes toward genetically modified food are profoundly shaping the African response. The repercussions can be seen most clearly in Zambia, where 3 million people face starvation because of drought.
After donated corn began to arrive, the Zambian government discovered it was partly genetically modified and said it posed major environmental and perhaps health implications. Zambia turned to Europe for guidance and has now rejected 63,000 tons of American corn. It even turned down the corn in milled form, free of genetically modified seeds that farmers might plant.
"We believe the government of Zambia has disregarded the scientific evidence and is rejecting the advice that accepting this safe maize to feed its hungry people would help avert human catastrophe," the United States said. But Zambia looks to Europe, not to America.
British activists have had a hot line to the Zambian scientists entrusted with advising their government about such corn. The Zambians have adopted the groups' suspicion of genetically modified food and they have been particularly moved by the health fears that erupted in Britain in 1999.
In September, Zambia's scientists traveled around Britain, Brussels, the Netherlands, Norway, the United States and South Africa on a quest to understand issues surrounding genetically modified food. One of the seven-member team said: "I did see things differently from the way I saw them before I left: I got more scared."
Mwananyanda Lewanika is a biochemist at Zambia's National Institute for Science and Technology, holds two degrees from American universities and has specialized in biological safety for five years. He said his team rejected the corn largely because of health concerns raised in Europe.
His first concern is gene transfer the idea that the foreign genes in genetically modified plants could, while in the digestive system, transfer to the cells of the body or into intestinal bacteria.
If the genes were for antibiotic resistance, as they sometimes are, bacteria that picked them up then could rampage unchecked through human populations, say opponents of genetically modified foods. Zambia's science minister, Abel Chambeshi, said in November that donors are refusing to tell Zambia what type of modified corn they have donated.
Mr. Lewanika also fears unintended effects resulting from gene insertion that the functions of genes are not fully understood, and that they may produce substances that could be poisonous or allergenic.
How could Zambia's scientists have attached such weight to health risks that are mostly irrelevant to those who face starvation? During their three days in Britain, as well as meeting representatives from five government bodies, the team met a host of nongovernmental organizations, many of whom pressed the health issues.
Farming and Livestock Concern UK said in the Zambia Daily Mail that the virus used to create most genetically modified varieties "could form a retrovirus that could produce symptoms similar to HIV" a contention that raises eyebrows among biologists. Genetic Food Alert raised the "unknown and unassessed implications of providing large quantities of food containing resistance genes to a large population in Zambia."
The scientists reported that they met a host of groups, such as Econexas, the Natural Law Party and the Third World Network, as well as hearing the arguments from organizations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the Soil Association.
These meetings convinced the Zambian delegates that the health risks of genetically modified crops are of even greater concern to African countries than to developed nations.
"The people of Zambia are in poor health," said Mr. Lewanika. "Many are immune-compromised. If the health concerns are true, they are more likely to affect those in Zambia."
The fact that Zambians eat unprocessed corn, while Americans eat their genetically modified corn in a highly processed form, also was important to the scientists.
"In Zambia, corn is eaten as nshima [a porridge] for breakfast, lunch and supper. In America, they eat it as cornflakes and tortilla chips, while corn on the cob is not genetically modified," Mr. Lewanika said. Foreign proteins in the maize would perish en route to becoming cornflakes, he says, but might survive the mild simmering that turns cornmeal into porridge.
Kainyua M'bijjewe, spokesman for Monsanto in Africa, has accused groups like Greenpeace of perpetuating starvation by persuading African governments to reject genetically modified foods. But Mr. Lewanika dismisses such accusations, saying he is capable of assessing the soundness of research for himself.
He says it is the groups that thought Zambia should accept the corn that failed to provide scientific arguments. He says they came across as patronizing and unsympathetic to Zambia's anguish over the corn.
Mr. Lewanika said David King, Britain's chief scientist, was dismissive. "He said that Zambia doesn't have a choice [and must accept the corn]. But he also said that he does have a choice, so he would not eat it himself.
"The Department for International Development said: 'You just accept it, because you have no choice.' As a human being, I felt that these people actually didn't care. You are being told you are put in a position where it's given to you so just accept it."
The five other famine-threatened countries in southern Africa have accepted such donated corn four of them on condition that it is milled before distribution, a process that is expensive and time-consuming but eliminates the chance it will be planted.
Another consideration is that Africa's agricultural future depends on Europe's stance toward genetically modified crops. If Europe rejects them, then African countries that grow them could lose their export markets.

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