Bioengineered foods help poor

June 16, 2008

by Roz Kohls

The US government and a dozen other countries finally announced May 13 they are filing a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization against the European Union’s (EU) five-year moratorium on new bioengineered crop varieties. The biggest beneficiaries will be resource-poor farmers in less-developed countries, according to Gregory Conko, director of food safety at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

European governments have been exploiting their citizens’ fears. Anti-biotech activists have been telling Europeans if even the smallest amount of bioengineered food gets into the food chain, it will force Europeans to eat dangerous products. They say giving Europeans a choice will help only US agri-business. That’s not so.

In 2002, Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa rejected 20,000 metric tons of food aid from the US during a year-long drought that threatened the lives of over two million Zambians.

Mwanawasa said publicly the US aid contained bioengineered corn. It had not been “proven” safe.

However, he and other Zambia government officials said later they feared they wouldn’t be able to export corn in the future to European markets, where bio-engineered corn is prohibited, Conko said.

The same thing is happening in Uganda. The country’s primary food staple, bananas, is suffering from years of devastation by a fungus. Belgian scientists were in the process of developing a bioengineered fungus-resistant banana plant for Uganda. Uganda recently backed off from the development because of EU restrictions, he said.

The resistant plant doesn’t produce pollen, so the introduced genes can’t be transferred to conventionally-bred plants. The genetic alterations are in the leaves and stems, not the fruit.

Finally, almost all of the bananas grown in Uganda are eaten by Ugandans, not exported. European markets aren’t going to be affected. Even if they were, why can’t Europeans decide for themselves whether to eat Ugandan bananas or bananas from Costa Rica?

It’s almost as if some governments would rather have their people starve, than lose access to European markets.

As much as 40 percent of crops in Africa and Asia are lost to insects, weeds and plant disease. Poor farmers can’t afford pesticides, so bioengineered crops are the best way for them to grow food, Conko said.

Some crops, such as golden rice and high-protein sweet potatoes, are bioengineered to be more nutritious than regular rice and sweet potatoes. If food is scarce, people can survive on less.

The EU’s fear of biotechnology is groundless, and is harmful to poor people worldwide.