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Biotech companies, environmentalists playing blame game
as much of Africa starves

. . .meanwhile, the national media never gives a complete story

EMILY GERSEMA / AP 7sep02

mindfully.org note: For a more complete idea of what this article is about, please see the following:

WASHINGTON -- Environmental groups and biotech companies are accusing each other of exploiting starvation in much of southern Africa for political gain as countries in the region try to determine whether it is safe to use genetically engineered crops to relieve famine.

Tensions escalated last week after the Bush administration charged that anti-biotech groups in Europe and the United States were inflaming fears about genetically engineered food, leading African countries such as Zambia to decline U.S. donations.

One of the groups, Friends of the Earth, suggested the recent U.N. announcement that genetically modified grains are safe to eat was made because U.S. biotech companies with powerful political influence want to increase use of their products.

"I'm surprised that any statement by the U.N. that engineered foods are OK, when the U.N. has recently called for more health and safety testing of genetically engineered foods," said Larry Bohlem, a spokesman for the group. "The public contradictions make it appear that the assurances by these global agencies are now politically motivated."

The United States is the leading contributor of food relief and producer of crops whose seeds have been spliced to increase yields, resist pests and contain added nutrients. Much of its food aid abroad includes biotech products, such as corn, which are eaten throughout the United States.

The United Nations has said the food is safe, but the statement is not a political endorsement, said Charles Riemenschneider, director of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in North America.

"There's a very serious situation in southern Africa and we're being asked to advise the governments with our position on this," Riemenschneider said. "We think obviously with what we know now that it is safe."

Industry leaders took issue with the idea that companies are using the food crisis as an opportunity to increase production of their specialty crops.

Scientists worldwide "have reached an overwhelming conclusion that these products are at least as safe as if not safer than conventional foods," said Val Giddings, a spokesman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman calls the environmental groups' campaign "disgraceful."

Giddings, like Bush administration officials, said the "green groups" are at fault, flaming fears in Zambia that biotech grains will contaminate crops and threaten their exports to countries that restrict genetically modified foods.

"It's turned into a very effective fund-raiser for them," Giddings said.

Gary Comstock, a bioethicist at North Carolina State University, said the dispute was tragic because starving people are being caught in the middle.

"From an ethical perspective I think that all we can say is that it's a clash of values that has almost resulted in a lost opportunity to help feed people," he said. "It seems to me that in this case the Bush administration has the moral high ground."

Zimbabwe and Mozambique also rejected the U.S. aid because of concerns about crop contamination. Recently, however, Zimbabwe has agreed to accept the donated grain on the condition that it first be ground into flour, eliminating the possibility the seeds could spread into fields. Mozambique is considering doing the same.

To allay fears, U.S. officials have offered to build a laboratory in Zambia where scientists could study the effects of biotech grains.

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