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Africa Raises Questions on 'Biotech' Food Aid

The United States, Wednesday, insisted that genetically-modified grain being offered as food aid to drought-stricken southern Africa is completely safe. At least three countries affected by the drought, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, have raised concerns about receiving so-called "biotech" corn.

The State Department says that "misinformation" about the safety of bio-engineered corn is delaying the delivery of some of the 100,000 metric tons of U.S. food aid the United States has shipped to Africa thus far to deal with drought-related hunger.

So-called "biotech" corn, genetically modified to make it more resistant to disease and insects, first appeared on the U.S. market a decade ago and is now in common use in a broad array of products from snack food to breakfast cereals.

State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said concerns in Africa that U.S.-provided corn is unsafe are unfounded.

"The food that we provide is eaten by millions of Americans daily. It's safe and wholesome and it's going to make the differences between life and death for millions of southern Africa's poorest people," he said. "So we're really committed to working with countries, making international experts available to insure that the leaders have the facts about biotechnology. The countries are free to formulate their own national agricultural policies, obviously. But now is not the time to turn away safe and desperately-needed food. And we're sending that message to the governments in the region, as well as calling upon the European Union to join us in assuring governments in southern Africa that food made from biotech crops is safe and should be distributed immediately to those who so desperately need it."

Officials here privately blame European states, which themselves ban biotech imports, for some of the misgivings in Africa about the U.S. aid. One official termed the European response to the regional crisis thus far as "meager," and said the EU should stop undercutting U.S. aid efforts and be more forthcoming itself.

Agricultural experts agree with the State Department's assertion that eating the product poses no danger to consumers. The director-general of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute, Per Pinstrup-Anderson told VOA Americans have been eating biotech foods for years without harm.

However, Mr. Pinstrup-Anderson said African concerns that the "biotech" corn could contaminate their domestic crops, and later cripple export prospects to European countries, are valid.

"There are no ecological risks as far as anybody knows. No risks have been identified," he said. "The real problem that Zimbabwe is facing is that if it later on wants to export corn to the European Union and it is unable to guarantee that the corn is not genetically-modified, they might lose their European market. And once the food aid is in Zimbabwe, some of it is bound to be planted by farmers because they are currently eating the seeds that they have set aside for the next planting. And when you plant an open-pollinated crop such as corn, you will have some cross-pollination so that other corn on the neighbor's field will also include some of the genetically modified material."

U.S. officials say there is no early prospect of Zimbabwe again becoming a food-exporter, and that with millions facing the threat of famine, it is not the time to be debating the contamination issue.

Mr. Pinstrup-Anderson said one way around the problem is to mill the corn into meal before it is distributed to needy Africans, thus eliminating possibility it will end up as seed. However he said the process is expensive and considerable amounts of un-milled corn are already in African ports.

Earlier this month, the United States and Zimbabwe resolved a dispute over a 17,000 ton shipload of U.S. corn, some of it genetically-modified, that had been sitting in a South African port for several weeks.

Under a swap arrangement worked out through the World Food Program, Zimbabwe's government agreed to accept the U.S. corn and shoulder the cost of milling it, while giving the U.N. agency a like amount of its own stockpiled corn for distribution to drought victims.

The United States has accused Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe of exacerbating food shortages through his government's uprooting of white commercial farmers. But it has none-the-less taken a lead role in relief efforts for Zimbabwe and five other countries in the region facing hunger.

The Bush administration has thus far shipped or pledged nearly 500,000 tons of food aid valued at about $230 million. That is about half the total amount of international aid the World Food Program estimates will be needed between now and next year's March harvest to stave off famine in the region.