Africans Starve, But Their Gov't Turns Down GM Food Aid From US

By Stephen Mbogo | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Nairobi, Kenya ( - The U.S. will not abandon efforts to help feed 2.5 million people facing starvation in the southern African country of Zambia, despite their government's refusal to accept food from the U.S. because it is genetically modified.

State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said the U.S. regretted the Zambian government's rejection of 12,000 tons of maize, which he said was safe.

"We believe this decision is likely to place the citizens of Zambia at a greater risk of starvation," he added.

Zambia had disregarded scientific evidence from international relief organizations and other governments that "accepting this safe maize to feed its hungry people would help avert human catastrophe."

Scientists, in a bid to create better crops, produce genetically modified or engineered food from plants that have had their genes changed in the laboratory.

The issue is hugely controversial, particularly in Europe, although there are no known health risks.

Zambian Agriculture Minister Mundia Sikatana said scientists from his country, after visiting the U.S., Europe and South Africa, had concluded that GM foods are not safe.

The greater southern Africa region is facing the worst food shortages in 10 years, as a result of rains falling at the wrong time in the growing cycle, and the effects of Zimbabwe's policy of seizing commercial white-owned farms, many of which are no longer being cultivated.

Despite declaring the famine a "national disaster, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa maintains it was not a sufficiently good reason to allow Zambians to eat dangerous food.

"Simply because my people are hungry, that is no justification to give them poison, to give them food that is intrinsically dangerous to their health," he told reporters at the Johannesburg earth summit in September.

Some GM food stocks already in the country have been looted by hungry Zambians, according to local media reports that quoted people as saying they could not die of starvation while food was lying idle.

The World Health Organization has certified the grain for human consumption and says it does not constitute a danger to people's health.

Boucher said the U.S. was ready to provide food assistance to Zambia through the U.N. World Food Program should the government reverse its position. It would stay in touch with the authorities in Lusaka.

Zambian officials say they fear the GM corn would find its way into their country's food growing cycle, and that this would complicate attempts at some later point to export certified GM-free food crops to Europe.

The UN estimates Zambia needs 120,000 tons of food through March 2003. The U.S. has sent 12,000 tons and is looking to provide a total of 60,000.

Boucher said other countries in southern Africa - including Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe - are accepting GM maize that has been milled so it cannot be planted. But Zambia has even turned this down.

More than 14 million people across the six countries will be at risk of starvation by next March, a U.N. special envoy said late last month. The U.N. had appealed for $611 million to help combat the crisis.

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