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Wonk's World: Better dead than biotech fed

Read the second in the series of Hindustan Times' Foreign Editor Pramit Pal Chaudhuri's fortnightly column.

india Updated: Dec 26, 2002 16:39 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

How environmentalists let Africans die to make a point against genetic modification

Greens kill browns. Or how many third world citizens are radical environmentalists willing to sacrifice to uphold their otherworldly beliefs? Quite a few, as a sideshow to the recent sustainable development Johannesburg jamboree seemed to indicate. Sadly the drama was laden with all the ingredients of a media non-story – starving peasants, scientific jargon and tonnes of corn. But it didn’t lack in either tragedy or farce.

The backdrop is southern Africa in August. No rain has left a few million people in Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi living on the edge. But relief agencies are ready. They have stockpiled corn in these countries. Washington promises to ship in a further $ 100 million worth of the stuff.

Act One. Out of the blue, Zambian President Levy Patrick Mwanawasa says he won’t allow corn that has been genetically modified. His argument against is health based. "We would rather starve than get something toxic," he proudly declares. Even as he calls them "poison," this former lawyer admits Zambians have been eating biotech corn for six years without having grown horns. Other countries like Zimbabwe follow suit and turn down food relief. Because it gets mixed up in the market, all the corn stockpiles built up by the aid agencies have some biotech stuff.

Act Two. The US is rightly indignant. Millions of Americans have been eating biotech cornflakes for breakfast for eight years. They haven’t grown horns either. In the third week of August, the US state department says, "We call upon the European Union to join us in assuring governments in the region that food made from biotech crops is safe and should be distributed immediately."

Act Three. The tragedy begins. Brussels, normally eager to look liking a do-gooder, turns down the US request. We don’t want to get involved in a dispute between the US and African governments, says the European Union spokesperson. The fact people are starving as a consequence seems to have missed Brussels.

Act Four. As Africans start to drop in their tracks, international pressure on Zambia starts to build up. The World Health Organization tells the health ministers of the region: Given that people from California to China eat biotech corn, there’s no reason why it should sicken African stomachs. African scientists petition against their governments’ "unethical and inhuman" position. Aid agencies parade experts before the politicians. Multilateral financial bodies threaten to cut off funds to regimes that want to deliberately starve their people.

Somewhat late in the day, even the European Union grudgingly admits that perhaps if you’re starving, eating biotech corn may be in your best interest. Environmental groups are equally slow in their response. But many still insist it’s better to be dead than biotech fed.

In rural Zambia, according to Reverend Steven Grabiner of Riverside Farms Aid Agency, people line up outside warehouses chockful of corn only to be turned away empty-handed. Peasants tell him, "Let me eat the food today and in 20 years, if I die, fine."

Act Five. The armour of ignorance cracks. Zimbabwe’s quasi-dictator Robert Mugabe says biotech corn is okay so long as it’s milled. His social welfare minister is relieved. "This will enable us to do our job," he says.

The compromise formula hints at the real reason for the refusal. If you mill corn, it can be eaten but not planted. Zambia and Zimbabwe export corn to the European Union, which bans pretty much anything genetically modified. The fear: If some peasant farmer starts to plant the biotech corn it will endanger the big business of agricultural euro-sales.

Mwanawasa continues to hold out. By mid-September one of his own parliamentarians, Vitalis Mooya, begs for biotech corn to be sent to his Moomba constitutency. His people are being forced to eat toxic tubers and, he says, "these are more dangerous than genetically modified organisms."

Somewhat bizarrely, the Zambian government gives the okay for biotech corn to be fed to 130,000 refugees who have fled wars in Angola and Congo. Zambia’s opposition leader, Michael Sata, quickly points out the contradiction. If biotech corn is poisonous, than Mwanawasa has committed mass murder. If it isn’t, then he’s doing the same to his own people. If the refugees are eating the corn, Sata says, then "it is not poison and all the stories we have heard about genetically modified food are not true."

Act Six. On September 9, Zambian Vice-President Enoch Kavindele brings down the curtain on this theatre of the absurd by saying Zambians can eat the biotech corn – so long as its milled. He drops the pretense of the corn being toxic. "Our decision to reject some of these foods is out of fear because we have been told that we will lose our European market if we start growing genetically modified foods. Hungry we may be, but genetically modified foods pose a serious threat to our agriculture sector as it can grind to a halt," he says. At last, the truth. It was money after all.

Whodunnit. Who told the Zambians that their exports would come to an end? The chief suspects are European aid agencies and environmentalist groups.

The science magazine Nature reported that "some aid officials working in Africa claim that the Zambian government is being encouraged by European aid groups to reject the US loan [to buy biotech corn]." Hannah Crabtree of the UK charity ActionAid said that accepting such biotechnology "could stop these countries getting back on their feet in the long term."

It was all a big, unseemly lie. The European Union allows the import of seven varieties of biotech corn. Only new types are banned. Zambian trade would not have been effected. In any case, it could still be eaten without harm. All this makes the initial decision of Brussels to keep mum about the corn’s safety indefensible.

For once, the green groups showed their true colours. They first kept their mouths shut. When it became clear this was going to be public relations disaster some of them, like Greenpeace’s Anne Cotter, said, "When it comes to famine, telling anybody not to eat genetically modified food in this situation is a position we absolutely don’t take."

Which was nice of them, given that they had spread the fears in the first place. The director of the US Agency for International Development, Andrew Natsios, pointed fingers at "small advocacy groups" from developed countries other than the West for spreading "rumours" among the Zambians.

Yet it was remarkable how many environmental groups stuck to the "better dead than biotech fed" right to the end. Some of the national chapters of Friends of the Earth mourned Zambia’s decision to feed its people. Two of the third world’s loudest and overweight greenies, India’s Vandana Shiva and Malaysia’s Martin Khor, were among those who insisted Zambia’s politicians had acted "responsibly." Shiva, it may be remembered, tried to block food relief for Orissa’s cyclone victims on similar, spurious grounds and with equal disregard for human lives.

The core of the crisis is the European Union’s crusade against genetic modification. Europe’s farmers get the fattest subsidy cheques in the world. Their farms produce huge surpluses. They have made a fine art of blocking farm imports into Europe. Making a fuss about biotech crops is just one such barrier.

This hard nosed economic self-interest has slotted quite nicely into European public hysteria over food safety, partly drummed up by greenies. In the Zambian case, the cancer of Europe’s biotech paranoia was being spread to other countries through trade.

There’s a joke among Canadian farmers that wheat is 20 per cent protein and 80 per cent politics. When it comes to a genetically modified crop the political content rises to 95 per cent. For many greens, it seems, the protein content is irrelevant. If people have to die to ensure that a romanticist principle about the supposed purity of nature is to be preserved – tough.

(Pramit Pal Chaudhuri is Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times)

First Published: Dec 26, 2002 16:39 IST