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Biotech Food Politics: Zambia Revisited

Last winter anti-technology scaremongers at Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and Consumers International convinced the government of Zambia to block the distribution of American-donated genetically enhanced corn to its starving people. A story on the front-page of yesterday’s Washington Post sheds more light on that sorry tale, proving once and for all that it was anti-biotech activists, not the United States, who played politics with African starvation.

In Munyama, Zambia, the Post tracked down the man who started a riot that we told you about in January, during which hungry villagers stormed a warehouse that held biotech corn. Here’s how the Post’s Justin Gillis describes it:

Kebby Kamota, father of 11, could take it no longer. “Three days! Three days!” he shouted, explaining how long his children would sometimes go without food as a drought worsened last year. “When I saw my children getting hungry, it was not easy for me.” Even as the bellies of the children ached, bags of relief corn sat in a warehouse, sealed tight, in this village on the shores of Lake Kariba …

So Kamota rounded up a mob that forced its way into the warehouse and distributed corn to scores of village families. A feast ensued. With that momentary act of defiance, the villagers of Munyama not only restocked their barren larders, they unwittingly became symbols in the long-running fight between Europe and the United States over agricultural biotechnology.

To biotechnology advocates, the villagers, along with people who broke into other Zambian warehouses last year, showed the human costs of an irrational new technophobia, centered in Europe and intent on blocking the development of gene-altered crops. To skeptics of biotechnology, the Zambian villagers became a symbol of the American government’s willingness to use destitute Africans as pawns in pressing the interests of Western corporations.

A few thousand words later, Gillis reveals that those “skeptics” who accused the U.S. of using Africans as pawns (check out this Greenpeace press release for just one example) were just plain wrong:

Richard F. Ragan, director of the World Food Program in Zambia, said he asked government leaders in advance if they had any problem with such biotech food, and was told no. The Zambian vice president at the time, Enoch P. Kavindele, declared that if the food was good enough for Americans, it was good enough for his own people.

So when the United States shipped biotech corn to Zambia, it had no intention of starting a political battle or scoring points against the likes of Greenpeace. It simply intended to feed hungry people with the same food Americans safely eat every day.

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