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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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  • Politics of Famine (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Dictator For Life ( 8829 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:06PM (#3995449) Homepage
    Given that Rhodesia was a net exporter of food, and at one time was the so-called "breadbasket of Africa", I think we may safely conclude that Zimbabwe's food issues are largely political in nature. Killing your farmers does not encourage agriculture, for instance.
  • by soapvox ( 573037 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:07PM (#3995453)
    Is this an opportunity for the WTO or the G8 to do something good for once and "encourage" the patent holders to forgo thier patents so we can help the under nourished? I'd like to see that happen but thats about as likely as Bill gates buying the corn rights and giving it away to the 3rd world. Gee I love this wonderful new free market economy we have that supposed to make everything fair and help the impovourished!
  • Figures (Score:5, Interesting)

    by _UnderTow_ ( 86073 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:09PM (#3995469)
    the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe is the same guy that told his people that it was OK to kill white farmers and take their land. He also rigged the last election to keep himself in power. I'm not suprised that he'd ignore the starvation of his own people to show the world how 'powerful' he is.
  • by Disevidence ( 576586 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:09PM (#3995471) Homepage Journal
    On the subject of patented crops, only.

    I find it quite disturbing that African Countries are prepared to starve their people, rather than contribute money to big overseas giants. This must speak volumes about the problems with patented crops.

    Food should never come patented, as it is THE basic necessity of life. What next, patented water?

    While Mugabe's regime is corrupt to the core, and the government bought this on themselves, there should be no excuse for forcing third world countries into a subservient like existence, where they have to pay multinationals for their basic food.

    Get rid of patents on food. The companies deserve to be paid for advancing food technology and supply, but this isn't they way to go about.

    (Disclaimer: Yes, i have read the article (it was on Fark the other day), and yes, it's only meant to be used for feeding, but that doesn't mean it will be.)
  • by Local Loop ( 55555 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:11PM (#3995485)
    This is already being done, especially with test crops, or valuable strains. However, cross-pollenization is still a problem - normal crops can get tainted with engineered genes just by being planted nearby.
  • by antirename ( 556799 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:25PM (#3995573)
    They are starving due to "drought and political mismanagement". In other words, they don't have enough food to feed themselves. However, the food that could feed them is not politically correct in the EU, therefore they couldn't sell it (or its proginy if planted) in Europe. So, they would rather let half their population starve rather than at some point become the breadbasket of Europe... now it's all making sense! The government doesn't want to feed their people, they want to resell the food and buy new cars, if you're really cynical. If you're not then this makes very little sense. Starve or not? I bet the people that are starving (as opposed to the people making the decisions) would have a very different take on this if they were allowed to express it.
  • by evalencia1 ( 132952 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:32PM (#3995622)
    Mother Jones had an article last June about the same problem with GM (genetically modified) crops, this time happening in Oaxaca, Mexico, where corn originated. The government is trying to silence scientists sounding the alarm. -- troversy.html
  • by Grax ( 529699 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:36PM (#3995644) Homepage
    Give a man a genetically engineered fish, he eats for a day. Teach him how to grow genetically engineered fish and then sue him for "stealing" your "intellectual property".

    Seriously, the jury is certainly not in yet on genetically engineered foods. It could be found to affect intelligence, safe reproduction, or cause cancer. Calling it "food" may be a bit optimistic.
  • by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:43PM (#3995696) Homepage
    Because they are starving *this year.* For any one of a number of reasons - many famines have their origins in temporary climactic, political, or economic factors. (Also, the thing of cash crops is that you can have a surplus of them, but due to trade factors *still* have starvation or malnutrition - a population cannot live healthily off of one crop alone.) The *fact* is that food exports to Europe is among their most important forms of international trade. Mugabe (I don't like him, either) has fucked up Zimbabwe agriculture this year with his demagoguery, but the essential risk of getting GM crops still remains. The US sure as hell is *never* going to be a major importer of staple food crops.
  • Re:Utterly insane (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MAXOMENOS ( 9802 ) <maxomai&gmail,com> on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:55PM (#3995760) Homepage
    The main problem that I see is one of IP rights.

    Let us suppose that I am growing 'normal' corn while my neighbor grows GE corn. Let us also assume that I make a habit out of saving 5-10% of my crop for replanting three years later, after a year of soybeans and a year of alfalfa, and that my neighbor is on a similar schedule.

    Let's start in 2000 with both of us planting corn. My corn has no GE genes in it; my neighbor's corn has some GE genes in it, which are covered by patents held by Frankenfood Inc.. That year some pollen from my corn invades my neighbor's field and vice-versa. Come harvest time, I harvest my corn and my neighbor harvests his. I save my 10% for replanting, and in 2003, I plant partially GE corn. My corn is now covered by patents held by Frankenfood Inc, unbeknownst to myself.

    Have I invaded on Frankenfood's patent?

    Do I owe Frankenfood Inc. royalties on their IP?

    If so, do I owe them in 2003, when I use the seeds; or do I owe them in 2000, when I first harvested and sold those GE seeds to the general public?

    Let's suppose that the cross pollenation occurs over long distances .. that the GE corn was grown in Zimbabwe and that my corn is grown in Chile, but that the cross-pollenation happens anyway due to a jet stream. Zimbabwe has a royalty-free license to use Frankenfood's GE corn. Chile does not even use Frankenfood's GE corn. Do I still owe them royalties?

    Can they get an injunction ordering me not to plant my corn or to destroy a corn crop that I've already planted? Can they back it up with guns if I refuse to obey?

    Can they sue my country under NAFTA or GATT and bankrupt the treasury?

    These are the kind of issues that I think people are worried about.

  • Re:two bullies (Score:3, Interesting)

    by ainsoph ( 2216 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @07:56PM (#3995767) Homepage
    I'm not a farmer, and I'm certainly not a modern farmer dealing with this patent nonsense, but it strikes me as pretty damn fucked up that saving food seed from year to year is now illegal and considered a quaint "local tradition" in a few backwards third-world countries.

    Smartest thing I have heard in weeks. I hope you get modded up to the moon.
  • Re:two bullies (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Dr.Dubious DDQ ( 11968 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:17PM (#3995872) Homepage

    You know, MOST of the biotech/corporation-bashing that goes on here is of the knee-jerk variety and irritates me greatly, but I actually agree with this one....

    Personally, i think the doctrine of "first sale" ought to apply to "patented" organisms just as it does (or at least, is SUPPOSED TO) to other things encumbered by the "intellectual property" label.

    Hmmmm....though would that mean that the farmer's sale of the seeds is a "public performance"?......

    (Side question - how much longer before the first of the GM plants' patents expire? Can't be long now, can it?....)

  • by cduffy ( 652 ) <> on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:32PM (#3995923)
    No, they already have their native breeds -- the issue is that the native corn may be mixed with the imported GE variety, resulting in all sorts of problems (IP issues, inability to import product into Europe, &c). If in the event of such mixing only the native corn were to grow/reproduce -- it wouldn't be a problem. A terminator gene is in this case a genuine solution.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:36PM (#3995950)
    Of course the editor missed the point.. It was Michael '' Simms. Come on, man, what were you thinking? This is the same guy who wanted us to start a 'fr33 k3v1n!' campaign over the anarchistic script kiddy behind

    'Yes! GM food bad! He strikes a blow for envirofascists everywhere!' opines's very own, in a supportive tone.

    Everyone else says, 'Yes, he's refusing the food so that he can blame his nation's famine on the evil foreign imperialists and their tools within Zimbabwe, who just so happen to be his political opponents. He's already been doing it for nearly two years, why would he bother to alleviate the pressure now, when the famine is finally killing people to drive home to the survivors how thankful they should be that they have Mugabe to prevent things from being even worse? Leading, naturally, to the appointment of Mugabe as dictator for life.'

    The bottom line: Mugabe's going Mao on us, and Michael Simms is still stupid.
  • by Dogtanian ( 588974 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @08:56PM (#3996043) Homepage
    What annoys me about this story is the way it's being presented here. This isn't a technical story at all; given Robert Mugabe's past record of 'using' valid issues as an excuse to terrorise his own people (black or white), I'd bet my life that this is a political move- Mugabe being responsible for the destruction of Zimbabwe's agricultural system in the first place.

    If this had happened in another "poor, starving, bankrupt" African country, the GM-based concerns may have been more relevant- and here's the problem. It seems the poster mentally grepped the original article for tech-friendly fodder- "Yeah! Here's something interesting about GM foods- good excuse to criticize^h^h^h^h^h^h^h^h^h have a valid discussion about them"(*)- and ignored any other issues. In this case, taking part of the story out of context has totally altered what it was really about.

    So much (valid) mistrust of Bill Gates in geekland- so why the naive (or lazy) willingness to take everything else at face value?

    (*) I don't like them either; primarily because of the reasons they're being pushed- but that's not the point here.
  • by ceejayoz ( 567949 ) <> on Thursday August 01, 2002 @09:14PM (#3996106) Homepage Journal
    exactly - imagine if the USA took away all the land from the farmers who are running everything quite well and producing much much more than we need, and gave it to the inner-city folks who don't know jackshit about farming. That's what Mugabe has done.
  • by Freedom Bug ( 86180 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @09:54PM (#3996260) Homepage
    In 20 years time, the anti-GM people will have 'won'. Automated genetic sequencing will allow standard Mendellian techniques to be much more precisely targetted.

    Before GM, researchers irradiated a bunch of seeds to induce mutation, then planted them. Then cross-pollinate plants with interesting characteristics. Rinse and repeat.

    With gene sequencing and modelling software, the cycle time can be reduced (ie, you don't have to grow the corn to see how it will turn out). Whammo, GM without GM.

    Of course, it's actually worse, because they're be undesired mutations in the crop as well as the ones they were trying to induce. But they'll be able to sell it as "organic' GM free.

    Humans have been doing GM work for 10,000 years now. There is no such thing as wild corn, for instance. The scientific method did much more to improve the rate of change than tools like genetic modification.

  • Sorry, but no. Selective breeding and GM are two different beasts. This is about crossing tomatoes with fish to get frost resistant fruit and such. Google and see, there are some pretty crazy combinations out there. If it was just glorified selective breeding there wouldn't be any issue at all.
  • by Jus ad Bellum ( 592236 ) <> on Thursday August 01, 2002 @11:39PM (#3996737)
    They are a danger to other plants though. On the west coast of Canada (and the US I would assume) there are Canola plants which were breeded to be immune to RoundUp. These plants have intermingled w/ the Canola that is naturally immune to the other herbicides that are used to kill the GM variety. So in effect a monster canola that grows like a weed and is immune to all the common herbicides. And this Canola spreads into fields where Canola is not the staple.
  • by khkramer ( 31219 ) on Thursday August 01, 2002 @11:45PM (#3996759)

    The government of Zimbabwe has agreed to accept the corn, with the proviso that it be milled either before being shipped, or immediately on arrival.

    AllAfrica story []
    Financial Gazette story []

    There have been a lot of thoughtful comments on this story. It's true that Zimbabwe's immediate economic problems -- plumeting agricultural production, inflation, industrial collapse, an exodus of skilled workers -- are the result of a corrupt and repressive regime that is determined to hold onto power at all costs. But it's also worth considering how difficult it would be to solve the country's problems even were a democratic and functional government in place.

    Like most African countries, Zimbabwe's foreign debt load is enormous (US$1 billion; the country has a GDP of roughly US$5 billion). Even if the country were to somehow turn itself around and bring production back up to pre-turmoil levels, the debt ratio is almost unbelievable. And the country has been terribly affected by the AIDS epidimic. It is estimated that one quarter of the adult population is infected with HIV/AIDS. There are predictions that within a decade, half of Zimbabwe's children will be orphans.

    And what do you do about land ownership? The violence against white farmers is indefensible, and Mugabe's cynical manipulation of that violence is vile. But the problem is serious. At independence (in 1980), perhaps half the country's farm land was owned by 1% of the population. These (white) farmers had been on the land for generations, and believed that the land belonged to them -- legally, morally, emotionally. But this economically- and racially-skewed distribution didn't come about by accident. The colonial government systematically expropriated and "re-settled" the "native" population. Most of this redistribution happened this century, so we're not talking about ancient history, here. And even if you choose not to think about the problem in historical terms, how do you build a free and egalitarian society in an agricultural economy with such unequal land ownership?

    I work at We distribute news about Africa, most of it from African newspapers and magazines. If you want to understand what's going on in a country, it's worth reading the local press occasionally. We have half a dozen Zimbawean papers, from across the political spectrum. (Which is a polite way of saying that one of them is controlled by the ruling party. We don't make judgements about a newspaper's integrity; we try to get as many "read-on-the-street" papers as possible and let readers make their own judgements.)

    You can take a look at our Zimbabwe headlines [] page. Here are some stories relating to the issues I've mentioned:

  • by jafac ( 1449 ) on Friday August 02, 2002 @01:45PM (#3999938) Homepage
    um - why don't we call a spade a spade here. Because the race issue IS important.

    The current farmers happen to be white - people who have farmed this land for generations. Dutch and English colonists.

    The people Mugabe is handing the land over to, are black natives. All in the name of "Kicking out the colonialist european white" people who have so obviously made Zimbabwe into the economic powerhouse it is today (well, 5-10 years ago, anyway).

    This is racial payback for the civil wars that were fought decades ago, and attrocities supposedly committed by mercenaries hired by the white farmers at that time.

    The problem is - you throw out the racial issue, and look at the situation rationally, Mugabe is getting rid of the country's most valuable resource - experienced farmers! Does it matter if they're black or white? I suppose it does to the black people, but these white farmers were born in Zimbabwe - their parents were born in Zimbabwe - it makes no sense to play the race card, or be jealous of the success of these people. But Mugabe is doing it, because his grip on power relies on paying the corrupt government that does his dirty work - in effect, he's not really in control, it's his cronies, who are happy to pay their henchman with stolen land.

The unfacts, did we have them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.