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Does Your Cereal Kill Insects?


By Jonathan H. Esensten

Soccer, six-week vacations and socialism are particular European obsessions. However, not all European preoccupations are so innocuous. Breakfast cereal, for example, is a sensitive point, especially if it has “impure” genetically modified food in it.

Whether it’s the French with their language, or the Germans with their blood, Europeans tend to be militant about protecting their “purity” from outside contamination. Most recently, the European Union (E.U.) has become obsessed with the “genetic purity” of its food, refusing to allow the import of genetically modified food from the U.S. or other countries. This policy has not only been the source of an unseemly spat with the U.S., but has also contributed to the starvation of thousands of people in sub-Saharan Africa.

This Monday, however, after years of wrangling with the U.S. and others, the E.U. environment ministers decided that genetically modified food, which composes a large percentage of food grown in the U.S., may be imported if strictly labeled. Although Europeans claim the foot-dragging is due to safety concerns with genetically modified food, the stance in fact stems from two more base motivations. First, Europe is more interested in keeping its food market closed to competition than helping starving Africans. Second, Europeans have not completely kicked their obsession with their own “purity,” and the American-led effort to mongrelize their food has resonated with the continent’s reactionaries on both the political right and left.

In an example of the European double-agenda, the journal Science reported last month that the government of Zambia rejected a shipment of corn from the U.S. because it likely contained genetically modified kernels. Much of the food grown in the U.S. has been modified with genes from other organisms. For example, some types of corn have a protein from a bacteria that kills insects. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not documented that the corn has any toxic effects in humans. Nevertheless, the absence of evidence that the corn is “safe” has led activists to declare it unwelcome.

A group of scientists working for the Namibian government recommended not accepting genetically modified U.S. corn because the long-term health effects of eating it have not been determined. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has said the subsequent decision in Namibia to refuse genetically modified U.S. corn leaves 2.9 million people without proper nutrition and at risk of starvation. The real reasons for the rejection, however, are not about health but about economics. Although humans have bred and crossed agricultural crops for thousands of years to optimize their genes for human benefit, the “unnatural” new methods of adding genes in test tubes have come under scrutiny, especially in Europe.

A country that grows genetically modified food crops risks losing any special trade relationships it has with Europe. Because it is difficult to keep modified and non-modified crops separate once they have been harvested, African nations fear they could lose their privileges to export food to Europe if they allow any genetically modified food into the country. Just a single field of modified corn can “contaminate” an entire harvest and turn the purity-obsessed Europeans away.

Along with the concerns about food purity, Europeans and others have realized that skepticism over genetically-modified food is a useful tool for protecting their agricultural industries from U.S. competition. The journal Nature, based in London, editorialized over the summer that it hoped the U.S. was not trying to donate genetically-modified foods to Africa in order to overcome export restrictions through a “back door.” By implying that the U.S. is exploiting starving Africans to advance the interests of its agriculture, Nature voiced the common European concern that its own agriculture is at risk when pitted against hardy genetically-altered American crops. Essentially, the Europeans are worried more about their farmers’ profits than African lives.

China has also begun to extend protectionism under the guise of concerns about food safety. For example, a strain of “super rice” developed at the National Rice Institute in Hangzhou has been banned from production for food. After its entry into the World Trade Organization this year, China has become more aggressive about making excuses to keep its markets closed to international competition. The recent concern with the health effects of genetically-modified food—in a country that once enthusiastically embraced such technology—points to economic self-interest over any real health concerns.

The real losers are the poor farmers and other citizens in developing nations whose governments will not allow them to produce or eat genetically-modified crops. Such crops might provoke a few allergies in Europe, but they can save thousands of lives. If you are reading this with your morning cereal, you already know genetically modified grain is safe. The E.U. knows this too, and it’s time for it to stop allowing starvation when the alternative has proven so cheap, safe and tasty.

Jonathan H. Esensten ’04 is a biochemical sciences concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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