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Starving Nation Turns Down Bioengineered Corn 868

The Washington Post has a story about Zimbabwe turning down shipments of genetically engineered corn, even though the country is experiencing a severe drought and starvation. Zimbabwe is afraid some of the corn will end up planted instead of eaten -- and growing patented corn is a no-no, of course! If the corn is planted even once, it may contaminate all future crops grown in those fields or any fields nearby, leading to huge lawsuits - and then the fields are contaminated, exacerbating the food shortage. So, starve or be bankrupted, and Zimbabwe appears to be choosing, "starve". Tons of ethical issues here, which have hardly been touched upon in the U.S. press.
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Starving Nation Turns Down Bioengineered Corn

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  • by Local Loop ( 55555 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:05PM (#3995439)
    As usual, slashdot editors fail to see the larger picture.

    The problem here is not about patents - it's about
    Europe's refusal to import genetically modified food. Europe is Zimbabwe's primary export market.
    If Zimbabwe's crops were tainted, they could lose their primary source of revenue.

    Furthermore, Zimbabwe is willing to accept the corn if the US will agree to mill it before shipping. The additional cost of milling is minimal, but is not covered by the aid package. Classic snafu.
  • by RhettLivingston ( 544140 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:20PM (#3995539) Journal

    Actually, normal corn is nearly non-existent in the US now and is rapidly being contaminated across all of North America. Pollen from the genetic crops is spreading far and wide.

    I liken some of Zimbabwe's worries to someone patenting a virus that infects all programs worldwide and then claiming rights to the infected programs. The bio industry has already gone after farmers whose crop was unintentionally cross-pollinated claiming that they did it on purpose. There are valid points in Zimbabwe's concerns.

  • Mugabe at Work (Score:5, Informative)

    by agutier ( 471583 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:34PM (#3995640)
    Also, keep in mind that Mugabe ordered a halt to the winter wheat harvest in June. This is part of a plan that will redistribute 95% of commercial farmland. Some 60% of commerical farms, 2,900 farms, where ordered to halt work. This was done during a food shortage, with the country on the brink of salvation. The plan is redistribute the commecical farms from white to black ownership. In practice, the land becomes gifts for Mugabe's cronies. Cereal production has fallen 67% since 1999-2000 accoridnig to the World Food Program, and will certianly tumble further.

    Rather than looking for grand conspiracies by US firms to starve Zimbabwians, look at the corrupt government of Robert Mugabe. It seems unlikely that someone who has wrecked such havoc on his nations agri-business would be interested in protecting his crops for the European market. If he is, then its the nature of the dictator to set absurd priorities.
  • by NearlyHeadless ( 110901 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:37PM (#3995656)
    http://www.economist.com/world/africa/displayStory .cfm?story_id=1201137 [economist.com]
    Economist.com | Zimbabwe


    From breadbasket to basket case
    Jun 27th 2002 | HARARE
    From The Economist print edition

    Faced with famine, Robert Mugabe orders farmers to stop growing food

    Get article background

    JUNE in Zimbabwe is midwinter, but because of the country's subtropical climate, its commercial farmers can grow food all year round. Right now, they should be tending the winter wheat, which is usually ready for harvest in September or October, and preparing their fields for warm-weather crops, such as maize, the national staple. But President Robert Mugabe has commanded them to park their tractors and stop farming. With half the people in Zimbabwe on the brink of starvation, this is, even by Mr Mugabe's standards, an exceptionally bad idea.

    From June 25th, some 2,900 white farmers, whose farms have been earmarked to be seized and given to blacks, were legally obliged to cease work. Those who continue to plough, weed and scatter seeds face jail terms of up to two years. Generously, the government said it would allow them to continue living in their homes for another 45 days, but then they must leave. In theory, they are permitted to take their portable possessions away with them, but in practice, police and ruling-party militiamen at roadblocks often prevent them from escaping with anything too valuable. Mr Mugabe's cronies, relatives and assorted mobsters covet their pick-up trucks and threshing machines.

    Continued ...

  • by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:52PM (#3995747) Homepage
    You know something? Some sort of agrarian reform is actually necessary in Zimbabwe. I don't like Mugabe's heavy-handed populist way of going about it, but even his critics agree that something needed to be done about a distribution of land resources that was inherited lock, stock and barrel from colonialism.

    I don't know what's going to become of it in the long run, but I know something that could be worse - an unregulated transfer of land to people who don't know how to farm, destroying any chance for agricultural exports. If Mugabe simply gave the land away now, without regulating its transfer, things would be worse in the long run. (I've seen agrarian reform fail in this regard before.)

  • by King of the World ( 212739 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:59PM (#3995781) Journal
    Most starvation isn't solved by more food, it's more an issue of distribution. There's also an issue of diet - and that it's scientifically proven that a vegetarian diet make more food for effort and land (I'm lucky not to have to worry about this, but for a poor country it's something to consider).

    The distribution argument has been thoroughly proven now through wor by Sen:

    ""Sen's best-known work in this area is his book from 1981: Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Here, he challenges the common view that a shortage of food is the most important (sometimes the only) explanation for famine. On the basis of a careful study of a number of such catastrophes in India, Bangladesh, and Saharan countries, from the 1940s onwards, he found other explanatory factors. He argues that several observed phenomena cannot in fact be explained by a shortage of food alone, e.g. that famines have occurred even when the supply of food was not significantly lower than during previous years (without famines), or that faminestricken areas have sometimes exported food.""
  • Re:Simple Answer (Score:2, Informative)

    by JacktheKeen ( 265212 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:02PM (#3995797) Homepage
    They DID ask for the seed to be ground! The US refused. Now that just seems dirty to me...
  • by hlh_nospam ( 178327 ) <concealedhandgun@NoSpaM.gmail.com> on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:05PM (#3995816) Homepage Journal
    Best evidence we have is that prior to the agricultural 'revolution', the maximum lifespan was around 70-75 years. The *average* was lower, due to infant mortality, and accident (hunting was a hazardous job). But those folks who managed to get past childhood diseases were actually likely to live to a ripe old age, provided they didn't get eaten by something. Take a look at this [chetday.com] article on Dr. Loren Cordain's research on that topic.
  • by lakeland ( 218447 ) <lakeland@acm.org> on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:16PM (#3995869) Homepage
    It seems a number of people are posting here without understanding the issues. I won't atempt to say what I think is the right answer below, but I will attempt to fix the errors other posters are making.

    Zimbabwe has a corrupt government: It drives white farmers off farms so there is little incentive for people with money to invest in agriculture; It rigs elections for political power. In many ways it makes Microsoft look like a friendly guy. It has nothing whatsoever to do with this decision.

    Zimbabwe would love to accept the food. But just as Zimbabwe must feed its population, it must also protect its income and if a single farmer anywhere plants this corn it could destroy what remains of the country. If it sacrifices future earning potential in return for food then it has no chance of getting out of the third world ever.

    This has nothing (directly) to do with Monsanto's patents on GE corn. A starving man will happily ignore his fears about GE being dangerous or his ideologies about patented food in order to feed his family. Perhaps the EU could be more tolerant about accepting GE imports, but then perhaps the US could be more willing to supply consumers with what they want.

    Normal corn is not genetically engineered. It is crossbred but it has only ever been crossbred with other grains, never with soya beans or frogs. It may be that crossing it with these things doesn't make it any more dangerous and the EU's policy is unnecessary caution, or it might not be. Either way there is a difference between GM food and selective breeding.

    I hope that clears up some of the FUD being posted. It still leaves open a number of possible solutions:

    • Mill the corn first so nobody can plant it -- as I said above, starving people are quite happy eating GE food.
    • Change the EU laws so it is willing to risk contamination.
    • Give them non GE food instead of GE corn.
    • Probably others I haven't thought of

    Oh, and if GE grain is shipped to NZ it is destroyed by customs; No sane exporter of food can dare import GE food. The market for GE food is just too small with the US on its own making ten times more than the total demand for GE food, it isn't just Zimbabwe that fears GE imports because of its export market.

  • by wdr1 ( 31310 ) <wdr1.pobox@com> on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:25PM (#3995903) Homepage Journal
    As usual, slashdot editors fail to see the larger picture.

    I don't think this is fair.

    It's really only a few, most notably these days Michael. Usually quite uninformed, but not afraid to speak loudly about it. I wish Slashdot would fire him. (Related note: anyone else notice Timothy seems to be getting better. Maybe it is worth while giving honest, non-flaming criticism?)

    Furthermore, Zimbabwe is willing to accept the corn if the US will agree to mill it before shipping. The additional cost of milling is minimal, but is not covered by the aid package.

    As the article states, the milling is actually a significant added cost at an additional ~25% increase. (The corn is estimated to be worth $95/metric ton. To mill it would be an additional $25/metric ton.)

    I think the article is a little skewed. The United States is the one making a very large donation to a poor company for almost no (if any) self-benifit, yet it is painted as the bad guy for not agreeing to mill the corn as well! Note that is the EXACT SAME CORN you get in the grocery store. I.e. we're not subjecting Zimbabwe to a lower standard than we place on our own people.

    If Europe wants to continue to claim to be concerned about the world as well, yet also wants to push back on genetically modified foodstuff, would it be so hard for multiple countries to kick in 25% of the United States donation and pay for it be milled (and thus eliminate the chance that they will be sold genetically modified corn)?


  • by Drogo Knotwise ( 587556 ) <drogo_knotwise@@@yahoo...com> on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:26PM (#3995907)
    If only Rob Mugabe at least was willing to give the farms to any blacks. Instead, he's only giving them to the members of his ethnic background (there are several (black) ethnic groups in Zimbabwe).

    Another reason why farming has been hit badly is the fact that a lot of the farms, their fields and their crops were burned by Mugabe's youth leagues and "war veterans."
  • by marko123 ( 131635 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:39PM (#3995964) Homepage
    If so, slashdotters should apply for the patent.
    It's not either (export rights)/or (IP rights). They _will_ lose the ability to export crops to Europe if their crops are contaminated, unless the EU changes it's policy. Also, they should get an undertaking from certain biotech companies to avoid situations like this. [percyschmeiser.com]
  • by Drogo Knotwise ( 587556 ) <drogo_knotwise@@@yahoo...com> on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:43PM (#3995987)
    One of Mugabe's chief tactics in the recent election was to support land reform. Even after more than 20 years of indepence, white people still own most the farmland in Zimbabwe. Mugabe supported a campaign to drive farmers and their workers off their land, and the government has passed laws to seize farms from their owners which are now taking effect.

    LOL. Chief tactics? His "chief tactics" were:
    • electoral fraud (a car accident a week before the election involving a government vehicle left the neighboring ground strewn with thousands of votes for (surprise!) Zanu-PF's very own... Robert Mugabe!)
    • forced adherence to Mugabe's Zanu-PF party (barricades run by youth leagues would stop drivers on major roads, check their Zanu-PF card, and beat up everyone without one)
    • manipulation of the electoral booths (the pro-MDC (opposition) areas (mainly big cities) had to turn away thousands of voters each because there wasn't time for them to vote in the alloted time frame)
    • intimidation, harassment and "disappearances" of MDC candidates and voters (entire villages were rased because of pro-MDC tendencies)
    • laws prohibiting free press
    • laws prohibiting manifestations against the President.

    In the end, the "land reform" was only an (unsuccessful) PR stunt. In the end, most people didn't like it, because either they didn't believe in property theft, or else simply because the only people benefitting from it were Mugabe cronies, whose votes didn't have to be won.
  • by Dr.Dubious DDQ ( 11968 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:44PM (#3995995) Homepage
    he's only giving them to the members of his ethnic background (there are several (black) ethnic groups in Zimbabwe). [emphasis added]

    If I had a "+1 insightful" to hand out right now, this post would get it....

    The modern world's conception of "race" is entirely broken, in my opinion, and is nothing more than a superstition at this point. From a genuinely biological point of view, there are probably quite a few different "races" of dark-skinned individuals [in the sense of mostly-geographically-defined, genetically distinct populations]...but the modern conception just lumps them all together as "black" or "African". (A lot of people would probably lump indigenous Australians into the "black" category on the shallow basis of "they got dark skin and curly hair", despite the fact that, as I understand it, they're more asian/polynesian in reality...)

    The point being that racism is stupid not ONLY because "it's intolerant" but because the distinctions defined by "race" in the modern world just plain don't make sense....

    To get slightly back on topic, This makes Mugabe possibly even WORSE of a racist than the KKK, which, as far as I know, accepts ANY "white race", not just certain subsets....(I could be mistaken about this - I'm not exactly an expert on racist groups...)

  • by PaxTech ( 103481 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:46PM (#3996003) Homepage
    The situation in Zimbabwe is very complex.. They're normally a food exporter, but there've been issues with food not being harvested due to political concerns. I don't pretend to know a lot about it, but K5 has a couple of articles that can get you up to speed if you really want to know the causes of the famine there.

    Much ado about Zimbabwe [kuro5hin.org]

    Much ado about Zimbabwe - Redux [kuro5hin.org]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 01, 2002 @09:43PM (#3996206)
    The whole truth is a little more complex and a lot uglier than that.

    Zimbabwe's agricultural economy is being systematically dismantled by the country's leader, Robert Mugabe, who favors a policy of forcibly removing white farmers from their land and (ostensibly) returning it to the blacks from whom it was "stolen" during the colonial period.

    However, the white farmers in Zimbabwe do, if anything, understand agri-business and the science of growing crops and raising cattle in the region, whereas the poor people who are being given the land do not. As a result, Zimbabwe's agricultural output has fallen precipitously and the entire country threatens to be reduced to subsistence farming. Other nations in this area face the same drought as Zimbabwe, but have managed to reduce its impact with sensible irrigation policies.

    Zimbabwe has become a net food importer - they don't need to worry about destroying the export market - they've done that themselves by failing to keep output up.

    It will probably get worse before it gets better.
  • by seney ( 244786 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @10:16PM (#3996367) Homepage

    world medical fund [worldmedicalfund.org]

    click (free) to give food [thehungersite.com]

    mercy corps [mercycorps.org]

    second harvest [americasse...arvest.org]
  • by MtViewGuy ( 197597 ) on Friday August 02, 2002 @12:50AM (#3996966)

    In the great famines of the 20th Century, just about all of them have been caused NOT by bad climate conditions but by war, political action or poor government decisions.

    I can cite the following examples:

    The Ukraine (1928-1933). The creation of collective farms by force and Stalin's extreme demands on food production essentially sent all of the agricultural production and then some out of the Ukraine with tragic results. Some 14,000,000 people died from the starvation caused by this policy.

    China (1921-1949). The factional fighting of the warlords, the fighting between the Communists and Nationalists, and the Japanese invasion of China resulted in many millions of Chinese starving to death because food could not be grown and distributed under war conditions.

    China (1958-1963). The ill-advised Great Leap Forward resulted in poor agricultural policies that led to massive crop failures and near-starvation for much of the country.

    World War II (1939-1945). It was only the Marshall Plan that saved Europe from starvation due to the complete loss of means of food production and distribution throughout much of Europe. A similar plan saved Japan from the ravages of the war.

    Africa (1960s-today). The departure of the colonial powers resulted in the rise of civil wars, tribal warfare and despotic regimes that often used control of food production and distribution as a weapon. No wonder we had cases of famine on an unbelievable scale all over Africa since the 1960's, with the mass starvation in southern Sudan and in Zimbabwe being the latest examples.
  • Don't forget:

    North Korea (1990s-present)
  • MUGABE (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 02, 2002 @06:53AM (#3997680)
    Forget the arguments about GM corn.

    Zimbabwe is one of the most fertile countries in Africa but it isn't actually growing anything - by presidential degree!

    Mugabe is a mad man who is systematically starving districts that voted against him in the recent elections. This is FACT. The BBC had to mount an illegal undercover operation to get into Zimbabwe to gather the evidence as they and many other news agencies are banned. Who bans the BBC for god's sake?!

    Over the last few years Mugabe has forced white farmers off their land insisting that it must be redistributed to nationals. All that happens is that so-called "war veterans" move in, smash the farms up, get bored and fuck off.

    Zimbabwe has been ripped apart by very evil and stupid men.

    Oh, and Mugabe has a really stupid-looking moustache.

Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced -- even a proverb is no proverb to you till your life has illustrated it. -- John Keats