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Heated debate over GM food at summit

By ROGER BATE

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa, Aug. 28 (UPI) -- Though 14 million people face starvation in southern Africa, the controversy over genetically modified seed loomed Wednesday at the Johannesburg summit on sustainable development. In an increasingly vitriolic debate, GM critics argue that it is not an unacceptable solution, and supporters hail it as the answer to Africa's number one problem.

Lavshankar Upadhyay, the president of the farmers union in Gujarat, India, and a summit delegate argues that lack of technological diversity contributes to the food shortage in

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Africa. "Without new technologies, such as GM seeds -- which are more drought resistant -- and agro-chemicals it's harder to vary growing seasons and maintain crop diversity, which protects against extreme weather," he said.

Upadhayay is firmly in favor of GM food, but based on the statements he was in a minority inside the conference center.

One argument frequently made was that GM remains untested and could have irreversible health and environmental effects. Delegates cited the development of superweeds, and the danger of gene transfer to unrelated crops, with unknown consequences.

Others were concerned that GM technology would make farmers dependent to multinational suppliers.

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Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva, said "There is plenty of normal maize in the world available for this emergency, and any government that claims only GM corn is

available is lying."

Her views reflected widespread concerns that the United States is foisting GM food aid on impoverished nations because use of genetically modified food by other countries broadens the acceptability of the technology in Africa. Observers feel they have a point. Since GM food and seeds were accepted by Malawi and Zimbabwe, other African countries are considering it too.

Wednesday Indian farmers who marched through Johannesburg in support of new technologies and open access to western food markets awarded Vandana Shiva with "The Bull**** Award for Sustaining Poverty." The award is made from varnished cow and elephant dung. Whether Shiva will actually collect her prize is uncertain.

The farmers claim that Dr. Shiva and her allies will perpetuate poverty if they succeed in denying GM seeds to Indian farmers. They argue that India recently had as bad a drought as southern Africa is now experiencing, but because of different technologies, including GM, production dropped by only two percent -- and virtually no increase in the price of grain.

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Experts of this issue point out that it is often the increase in price of food that

causes the famine, since it encourages hoarding.

A green NGO delegate who was monitoring the march claimed to UPI that the Indian farmers at the summit were probably sponsored by a multinational corporation. Most of the Indian

farmers. on the contrary, oppose GM seed and the international corporations. Mr. Upadhyay denies this charge.

Many of the African farmers, such as TJ Buthelezi, the leader of the South

African Ubongwa Farmers Union, are aligned with the pro-GM Indian farmers: "Its imperative we have all available technologies to address drought in Africa," claimed Buthelezi.

But these farmers are rightly more concerned that the really important issue of removal of agricultural protection in the developed world is not being addressed at the summit.

Without the prospect of expanding markets to the north action foreign investment in crop development into Africa will remain at a paltry level.

However, as Upadhyay concluded, protection is set to continue and the developing world must become more self-reliant, which means using the latest technologies.

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