If Genetically Modified Foods Are Good Enough for the West …

Why the Fears in the Third World? Ask U.S. Envoy to the Vatican

ROME, NOV. 23, 2002 (Zenit.org).- The debate over the safety of genetically modified food has flared up again. Zambia refused to accept relief food from the United States that may be genetically modified. The country’s president, Levy Mwanawasa, was quoted Sept. 4 by the New York Times as saying such food is “poison” and “intrinsically dangerous.”

As part of its weekly analyses, Zenit offers an opinion piece from Jim Nicholson, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. The article appeared in the Italian paper Avvenire on Nov. 17.

More information about GM-food debate is available in a question-and-answer document published by the World Health Organization (see the 8-page PDF file at www.who.int/fsf). Or contact [email protected] for more information.

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Feed the Hungry Food, Not Fear

By James Nicholson
U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See

Famine has once again struck the African subcontinent. Who cares? Certainly the United States does. Certainly the World Food Program does. The United Nations says it does. But who else?

Feeding the hungry is a moral responsibility of the nations of the world. On the occasion of World Food Day in October 2000, Pope John Paul II reminded the world that “when the Christian asks God to, ‘give us this day our daily bread,’ in the plural, he is taking responsibility for the needs of others.”

This is a responsibility the United States takes very seriously. That is why we provide over 63% of the food stocks of the World Food Program. That is also why we have been seized with the growing food crisis in Southern Africa and have provided over 60% of the food assistance to the hungry people in this region already this year.

But there is a problem. Simply stated, some countries won’t feed this food to their starving people — even in sight of people clamoring for it — because of unfounded, unscientific allegations that it might be unsafe to eat.

The food the U.S. provides to hungry people all around the world is the same food that is eaten every day by Americans, Canadians, Australians, Argentines and some Europeans. It is the same food that American farmers export to markets all over the world. It is every bit as safe, wholesome and nutritious as conventionally produced foods. Tens of thousands of tons of it are on the ground in southern Africa right now, already feeding hungry men, women and children.

The United Nations, which shares our concern regarding this food crisis, issued a statement on Aug. 23 underscoring its view that, “the consumption of foods containing GMOs now being provided as food aid in southern Africa is not likely to present human health risk.” The U.N. statement reaffirmed what the U.S. government has been saying for years: There is no scientific evidence that these foods pose a risk to human health. Two hundred people die every year in Italy from eating the wrong wild mushrooms, but there is not one fatal incident — not even a reported case of a stomachache — from eating genetically modified food. Even the European Commission representatives in Lusaka, Zambia, issued a statement on Aug. 28, indicating that these GM foods are safe to eat.

So why is the food still sitting in warehouses untouched? It appears that a combination of competing economic interests and special interest groups opposed to biotech foods has succeeded in sowing fears that these foods could have unforeseen health effects, and that whole grain foods, if planted in Africa, might result in a loss of potential markets in Europe.

Those who cultivate such fears do not go to bed hungry. Those who have the luxury to debate biotech versus regular or organic food while millions are at risk of starvation do so with a real moral burden. They are saying it might be OK for Americans or Australians to eat but not starving Africans. To those who make these claims, Nigeria’s Agriculture Minister recently pointed out that “to deny desperate, hungry people the means to control their futures by presuming to know what is best for them is not only paternalistic but morally wrong.”

Thankfully, some, including the Holy See, are now taking a second look at their preconceptions about biotech foods in light of the real famine in Africa, but more need to do so urgently in the face of over 14 million souls who face starvation.

As U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, I am acutely aware of the strong moral voice that the Holy See offers the world. In his “Populorum Progressio,” the Pope recalled the words of St. James, who instructed early Christians that if a brother or sister lacks their daily nourishment, and one of you says to them: “Go in peace, be warmed, and be filled,” without giving them what is necessary for the body, what good does it do? Today, we must still heed his words, and see that those ravaged by hunger get the nourishment they need to live, and with dignity, like the rest of us are lucky enough to do.

So, who cares? We all should.

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