President Bush thinks all nations, especially those in Africa, should warmly embrace “bio-crops” produced by the United States. He says that their refusal to accept genetically engineered crops is not scientific, but rather a fear of economic loss if the European Union continues to reject genetically engineered foods. Economic loss is a real concern, but a closer look at the reasons given by other nations reveals widely held, scientifically based concerns about potential health impacts as well.
People around the world find it odd that U.S. government officials are saying engineered foods are safe, when U.S. scientific bodies like the National Academy of Sciences and a scientific advisory panel serving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are calling for more safety testing. The panel wrote that the bacterial toxin placed in most forms of engineered corn may be a human allergen. Meanwhile, dozens of severe allergic reactions to corn products in the United States were reported in 2000, but according to EPA advisors, not adequately investigated.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also failed to conduct its own safety tests of engineered foods. The agency merely asks biotech companies to voluntarily submit data from their own studies, a form of corporate self-policing that is not universally accepted. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the transparency of data provided by industry is woefully inadequate. Until the FDA requires independent safety testing, people all over the world will remain justifiably concerned about engineered foods.
They will also be skeptical as long as the biotech crop producers are Monsanto, Dupont and others that have polluted the planet with the most toxic chemicals ever generated — DDT, PCBs and Agent Orange, to name a few. Once released, even in small quantities, widespread contamination by engineered crops can occur, as documented in both the United States and Mexico. In 2000, StarLink corn, an engineered variety not approved for human consumption due to the potential to cause life-threatening allergic reactions, contaminated America’s food supply. Just 0.5 percent of the U.S. cornfields were planted with StarLink, yet an estimated 10 percent of the entire harvest was contaminated. Real life, not imagined, concerns about remnants of StarLink arose from a finding in June 2002 by a citizens’ group in Bolivia. The group discovered food aid sent by the U.S. Agency for International Development contaminated with StarLink engineered corn.
More recently, Japanese importers reported that the corn had contaminated an American grain shipment. This undesirable engineered crop persists despite a ban of its planting in Fall 2000, and a declaration by the EPA in July 2001 that no level of StarLink could be determined safe for human consumption.
The appearance of genetically engineered corn in remote regions of Mexico, which has banned its cultivation to avoid polluting the origin of corn, also shows how easily engineered traits can move and multiply. The source is thought by some scientists to be American imports for animal feed or food processing inadvertently planted or spilled during transport.
The Bush administration argues that any health or environmental concerns held by people in hungry nations are overshadowed by a shortage of non-engineered corn to feed those who seek it. On the contrary, there are millions of bushels of non-engineered corn on commercial markets today in the United States and abroad.
For the past two and a half years, major taco and tortilla producers in the United States successfully substituted large quantities of conventional white and yellow corn for the engineered corn they had been using before StarLink contamination occurred. Additionally, South Africa, Japan, Holland, Norway and the European Commission were among numerous donors providing huge amounts of conventional corn over the last year to Zambia and other southern African nations in need of food aid.
Given the alternatives available to address famine and the very legitimate concerns about potential health and environmental impacts, a decision to reject genetically engineered food should be respected. After all, according to numerous public opinion polls and a recent United States Department of Agriculture survey of consumer attitudes, if given the option, the majority of Americans would choose conventional food over genetically engineered food as well.
NNIMMO BASSEY is the Executive Director of Friends of the Earth Nigeria (also known as Environmental Rights Action). Nnimmo established the organization in response to human rights abuses in Nigeria that have stemmed from the unbridled pursuit of natural resources by both government and transnational corporations (TNCs). Over the 9-year history of Friends of the Earth Nigeria, Nnimmo has suffered arrests and harassments aimed at silencing him and preventing him from associating with other advocacy groups. At one point his international passport was seized by the secret police effectively keeping him from travelling outside his country. Nnimmo also works as an architect in Nigeria and has published three books of poetry.
LAWRENCE BOHLEN leads Friends of the Earth‘s Health and Environment Programs that work to protect people against pesticides, genetic contamination and other pollution.