Africa's Hungry Aren't Picky

Despite ongoing controversy, genetically modified foods have won a firm place in farm fields and stores because of their benefits, such as high productivity and better resistance to pests.

Many critics, however, still feel these new types of organisms haven't been adequately tested for their long-term effects on human health or, perhaps more significantly, their effects on nonengineered plant species.

This debate has surfaced with a vengeance in Southern Africa, where six countries and 13 million people face famine. Some of those countries have resisted Western food aid – notably US corn – because it includes genetically modified grain.

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Donors note that a starving child in Zambia, for instance, couldn't care less about theoretical risks from food that has been on tables in North America for years. Some African leaders' rhetoric about not wanting to feed their people "poison" is clearly overwrought. So-called GM foods have been tested and retested for safety, and the World Bank just announced a three-year review to probe safety concerns yet again.

Another concern of a few African leaders is the possibility that GM corn will be planted by farmers, with unforeseen environmental consequences – as well as economic impacts. The latter spring from the worry that the European Union, in particular, would refuse imports from countries where modified plant strains may have entered agricultural production.

To allay this concern, some countries have agreed to accept only milled – nonplantable – corn as food aid. That, of course, makes the aid more expensive. Zambia alone is standing firm against any consumption of GM food.

Ironically, farmers in neighboring South Africa and Kenya are already using biotechnology to improve yields. And many other farmers in developing countries are lobbying to have the new seeds.

The modification of foods by gene-splicing will probably be debated for years to come. In famine-struck Southern Africa, the time for debate may be past. Food needs to be put into people's hands as quickly as possible. If that means milling grain in some cases, or substituting wheat (which doesn't raise the genetic engineering issues) for corn, or more intense explanation of why it's considered safe for consumption in America, so be it.

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