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The refusal to accept genetically modified food is critically affecting the welfare of starving people in Zimbabwe and Zambia


Business Day (South Africa)
November 7, 2002


The refusal to accept genetically modified food is critically affecting the welfare of starving people in Zimbabwe and Zambia. The scientific world has given the issue of genetically modified crops careful attention, but their view is not being heard in the current emotional debate.

First, the issue of safety and testing. Currently 46% of world soybeans, 20% of cotton, and 7% of maize are genetically modified crops, after having been approved by regulatory authorities in the US, Argentina, Canada, China, Australia and other countries, and a vast amount of data has accumulated as a result of this widespread use.

This February the Royal Society (London) published a policy document on genetically modified plants for food use, based on an in depth study of all presently available evidence regarding potential risks to human health. This document states there is no reason to doubt the safety of food made from genetically modified ingredients that are currently available, nor to believe that genetic modification makes food inherently less safe than their conventional counterparts. It has been stated that genetically modified food has not been tested on humans.

However millions of Americans have been eating genetically modified maize and soya since 1995 without ill effects. It has been alleged that this widespread consumption of such food has lead to a silent pandemic of allergic reaction. The Royal Society study states there is at present no evidence that genetically modified foods cause allergic reactions.

Second, the issue of increased yields and the need for genetically modified crops. There are 5.5-million farmers worldwide who find it worth paying higher prices for genetically modified seeds to obtain greater returns. In China last year genetically modified cotton acreage tripled to 1.5-million hectares as farmers saw the benefits.

The Indian government has now agreed to introduce genetically modified cotton because of pressure from Indian farmers who have seen how its use increases productivity. In July 2000, after careful scientific study, a white paper issued jointly by the Royal Society of London, the national academies of science of Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and the US, and the Third World Academy of Sciences urged action to promote the use of biotechnology in alleviating world hunger and poverty. They urged governments to base their decisions regarding biotechnology on sound science.

Third, it has been stated that the recent rejection of genetically modified foods by Zambia was based on recommendations by Zambian scientists. This is not true. SA scientists are in touch with Zambian scientists knowledgeable about genetically modified foods, and they do not support the position of the Zambian government, which has taken this decision for political rather than scientific reasons.

Members of the lobby opposed to genetically modified food reject evidence from all those involved in research on which their careers are based, because of the implication that all such people are biased. This stipulation refuses to accept the considered opinion of any scientist who has the requisite professional qualification to evaluate the evidence, including all members of the academies of science I have cited above.


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