Genetically modified foods and famine


Workers digging up sweet potatoes in a farm in Brits, near Pretoria, in South Africa.


Francois Xavier Marit

As the world looks at photographs of starving children in Somalia, the debate about genetically modified foods (GM foods) has never been more relevant. Is it better for people to die of starvation than to eat genetically modified foods? Here's a quick history of the GM foods debate in Africa:

In the 1960s, Africa exported 1.3 million tons of food to the rest of the world. Today, plagued by international development loans, droughts and a myriad of other problems, it must import 25 percent of their food. To help out the food crisis, the Rockefeller Foundation, funder of the world's first Green Revolution, has partnered with the world's largest philanthropic organization, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to try and recreate the experiment in Africa.

The original Green Revolution took place in India and China in the 1960s, helping farmers ramp up food production. The experiment is generally regarded as an unambiguous success; other factors could have contributed to the resulting high crop yields. While the Gates Foundation has earmarked $130 million for using science and technology to benefit the farmers of Africa, government officials and leaders are resistant to these changes even as crop yields fall precariously below what is required to feed their people.

This has happened before. In 2003, a severe drought hit Africa, and aid agencies estimated that about 1.1 million tons of grain were needed to abate the crisis. When the United States offered 540,000 tons of grain, many countries rejected its offer. They didn't want to import GM foods, genetically engineered to be resistant to drought and pests into their countries.

“Just because people are hungry in Zambia, it does not mean we have to feed them with potentially dangerous food," said Levy Mwanawasa, then President of Zambia, initially blocking GM foods for the 2.5 million Zambians facing starvation. In the United States, however, GM foods are sold on the market without identifying labels. As the food crisis raged on, Mwanawasa sent scientists across the world to study the safety of the food before reaching his final conclusion, agreeing to accept it as long as it was milled elsewhere.

Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe also asked that the seeds from GM foods be milled before being distributed in their countries to ensure that the seeds would never cross-bred with their own crops. The decision to grow GM crops is controversial — many cite health reasons as the cause to not allow GM foods.

There concerns aren't baseless; two independent research studies have shown that there have been cases of allergenic reactions to Bt corn, a type of corn genetically engineered to be resistant to certain pests. Farming of GM peas was abandoned after the discovery that they caused lung damage in mice.

However, others argue that governments in Africa are concerned that their dependence on GM foods will make them indentured to the agricultural giants that hold the intellectual property rights to the grains.  Now, the debate on GM foods is rising to the surface again. Last month, Kenya became the fourth African country to allow GM foods into the country and will begin producing them domestically.  Prime Minister Raila has insisted that no GM foods have been distributed within the country, but concerns abound that the distrubitions will affect the refugees arriving from Somalia.