genetically modified (GM) foods in the last half of the 20th century created a whirlwind of controversy in the developed. Critics argue that genetically modified foods are unnatural and unsafe, while supporters note that genetically modified foods can improve crop yields, increase nutrient content, and improve food safety. Over the past decades, the production and distribution of genetically modified foods in North America and Europe has long been discussed, and governmental controls have been implemented. In contrast, many African countries have not had the opportunity to develop GM food policies. When the U.S. offered genetically modified foods as part of an aid package to African countries in the past years, the act renewed the controversy around genetically modified foods.
This paper will focus on the debate surrounding the use of genetically modified foods as food aid to African countries. First, a brief background to the GM food industry, and GM food Aid to African nations will be given. Second, general arguments supporting the use of genetically modified foods, and against the use of genetically modified foods will be given. Finally, the arguments for and against GM food will be applied to the debate on GM food aid.
Background to Genetically Modified Foods and Food Aid
In the past several years, the United States has proposed to provide genetically modified food to aid African countries. Many groups responded with severe criticisms to the plan, creating a great deal of controversy. In late 2002, Zambia refused GM food aid for the 2.5 million Zambian people in need (Knight).
In contrast, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Lesotho all agreed to receive GM food aid under certain conditions (Knight).
Prior to the debate over genetically modified foods as food aid, the GM industry in the western world had rested in an uneasy stalemate on the issue of genetically modified foods. The FDA in the U.S. has required that genetically modified foods in the U.S. must significantly alter food composition before the genetically modified foods undergo review. In contrast, Canada and much of Europe has had much stricter controls on whole genetically modified foods, while having less stringent controls on manufactured foods.
Arguments Supporting Genetically Modified Foods
Supporters of genetically modified foods have a number of convincing arguments on their side. Supporters argue that genetically modified foods can help to feed the world's booming human population. They note that plants can be modified to increase resistance to pests, and increase tolerance to herbicides, and reduce resistance to diseases, and increase tolerance to cold. Further, supporters argue that plants can be modified to increase their tolerance to drought and increase their nutritional content. Further, supporters argue that designing GM plants to produce medicines and vaccines cheaply and effectively. The use of GM plants like tomatoes and potatoes to develop edible vaccines will allow these vaccines to be created cheaply and stored easily. In addition, GM plants can be grown that are designed to clean up soil and groundwater pollution, a process known as phytoremediation (Whitman).
Arguments Against Genetically Modified Foods number of groups have raised important concerns about genetically modified foods. They have criticized agricultural business for pursuing profits above safety, and the government for not implementing adequate controls on genetically modified foods.
These groups argue that there are a variety of potential environmental hazards associated with genetically modified foods. These include causing unintended harm to other organisms. A recent paper published in the scientific journal Nature gave some credence to this theory, by noting that monarch butterfly caterpillar were damaged by pollen from GM corn. Further, critics note that genetically modified foods may ultimately reduce the effectiveness of pesticides as insects gradually become resistant. Critics also note that it may be possible to transfer GM food genes to non-intended species. If these genes are transferred, it is possible that weeds may acquire herbicide tolerance of genetically modified foods, resulting in weeds that are difficult to control (Whitman).
Critics have also noted that genetically modified foods may pose human health risks. Importantly, they note that genetically modified foods may result in unforeseen increases in allergic reactions. This may occur if a gene is introduced into a plant that can cause an allergic reaction in specific individuals. Further, critics argue that genetically modified foods may present unknown risks to human health (Whiteman).
Opponents of genetically modified foods have noted that there are important economic concerns associated with the industry. Importantly, producing genetically modified foods is a long and expensive process, and critics are worried that patenting plant varieties will make it impossible for third world countries and small farmers to afford FM seeds (Whiteman).
Many criticisms of genetically modified foods are philosophical, rather than scientific, in nature. For example, critics note that the "central problem underlying all of this technology is not just its short-term benefits and long-term drawbacks, but the overall attempt to 'control' living nature based on an erroneous mechanistic view" (Batalion). More succinctly, opponents of GM food accuse scientists of 'playing God'.
The Pros and Cons of Genetically Modified Food Aid
The general controversy surrounding genetically modified foods often stems from that fact that there is a great deal that is unknown about the genetically modified foods. There are great potential benefits to genetically modified foods, in addition to great potential for damaging discovering.
Food is also a very personal and individual subject that can create strong emotional responses, a fact that has likely fueled the controversy surrounding FM foods (SCOPE Research Group). When combined, these factors have made genetically modified foods a contentious issue.
When combined with other issues surrounding food aid to Africa, the debate surrounding genetically modified foods becomes even more charged. This debate must consider the moral and ethical debates surrounding food aid in Africa, as well as considering emotional reactions to GM food, the great potential for harm and good that comes with GM food. Further, given that most African nations do not produce genetically modified foods, the introduction of genetically modified foods as food aid provided these nations with their first introduction to the controversy surrounding genetically modified foods. As can be expected from this combination of factors, the debate about GM food aid to Africa was explosive.
Supporters of GM food aid to Africa have made several important and interesting arguments for this aid. Supporters of GM food aid to Zambia noted that the rejection of genetically modified foods could place citizens with HIV and AIDs at risk for malnutrition (Knight). In essence, these supporters argue that refusing GM food aid may damage the health of many Zambians.
Further, supporters of genetically modified foods in Africa note that genetically modified foods are safe. Specifically, the World Health Organization notes that genetically modified foods are safe, because "They have gone through risk assessment and have actually been eaten for many years" (Knight). Further, the leader of Zambia's opposition party has noted that there is no evidence that GM food poses a risk to human health. As such, he argues that Zambia should accept GM food aid (knight).
Critics of genetically modified food aid to Africa have developed several serious arguments against the use of genetically modified foods as food aid. For example, many environmental groups support Zambia's decision to halt U.S. FM food aid (Knight).
It is the unknown factors surrounding genetically modified foods that resulted in Zambia refusing FM food aid. Like in other countries, a fear of the unknown seems to have driven a great deal of criticism about genetically modified foods in Zambia. Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa is reported to have called GM food "poison." After sending a delegation to the U.S., South Africa and Europe, Zambian agriculture minister Mundia Sikatana noted "In the face of scientific uncertainty the country should thus refrain from action that might adversely affect human and animal heath, as well as harm the environment" (Knight).
Later reports noted that Zambia's decision was influenced strongly by the UK-based BMA's fears about the spread of antibiotic resistance genes in FM foods to bacteria, and the potential for genetically modified foods to cause allergies (Coghlan). Supporters of genetically modified foods argue that the Zambia's decision was based on bad advice from the BMA. For example, the South African head of AfricaBio notes, "The American Medical Association backs GM food, as does the Royal Society in Britain, the Third World Academy of Sciences and the Food and Agriculture Organization" (Coghlan). Notes Whitman, "On the whole, with the exception of possible allergenicity, scientists believe that genetically modified foods do not present a risk to human health."
Despite these pronouncements of the relative safety of genetically modified foods, recently some prior supporters of genetically modified foods have become more conservative in their reservations of GM food. Notes a New Scientist editorial, "A few years ago, senior scientists were won't to dismiss public concerns about GM crops as hysteria. Now they are telling regulators to get tougher" (New Scientist Editorial: Worlds apart). Further, former British environment minister Michael Meacher has noted that the UK government ignored…