Zimbabwe’s Rejection of GMO Food Aid is a Humanitarian Outrage


My country’s government would rather see people starve than let them eat genetically modified food.

That’s the only conclusion to draw from the announcement in February that Zimbabwe will reject any food aid that comes in the form of GMOs, despite the fact that we’re suffering from our worst drought in two decades and up to 3 million people need emergency relief.

“The position of the government is very clear,” said Joseph Made, the Minister of Agriculture. “We do not accept GMO as we are protecting the environment from the grain point of view.”

So my country – a country that can’t feed itself – will refuse what millions around the world eat safely every day as a conventional source of calories. It doesn’t matter whether the aid arrives as food for people or feed for animals: Customs inspectors will make sure none of it reaches hungry mouths.

When it comes to GMOs, we’re apparently better dead than fed.

The drought has devastated my family’s farm, which will produce almost no sorghum or corn this year.

We’re short of money and the drought has caused prices to soar, even for the simplest of goods. In the markets, cabbages the size of tennis balls sell for USD$1.

People are desperate for work. I recently watched a man the age of my grandfather carry a hoe from house to house, trying to trade whatever labor he could offer for a meal. He wound up performing backyard chores for a cup of tea.

The rejection of GMO food aid is a humanitarian outrage—a manmade disaster built on top of a natural disaster. Yet something even worse lies behind it: a denial of science. GMOs pose no threat to human health, as every scientific and regulatory agency that has studied them knows. They are also positively good for the environment, allowing farmers to fight soil erosion, reduce greenhouse gases, and—most important—grow more food on less land.

For too long, however, African countries have looked to Europe for economic and intellectual leadership—and we’ve accepted Europe’s sweeping opposition to GMOs.

The difference is that Europe is a wealthy continent that can afford this ideological luxury. In Africa, we can’t. Grinding poverty is normal here. We need an agricultural sector that keeps up with population growth, rather than one that keeps on falling behind.

A handful of African countries appreciate the value of GMOs. Just across the southern border of Zimbabwe lies South Africa, where farmers are growing more than 5 million acres of GMO corn. In Burkina Faso, farmers plant GMO cotton. Earlier this year, Kenya approved field trials for GMO corn and commercialization could come next.

But these bright spots are the rare exceptions, proving the sad rule that in Africa, farmers lack access to the basic seed technologies that our peers in the United States, Brazil, and India take for granted as they produce record-setting harvests.

There are no easy solutions to a drought, and GMOs won’t cause the rain to fall in Zimbabwe. Yet the drought may serve the useful purpose of highlighting the madness of Africa’s anti-GMO extremism.

Right now, we need these GMOs in the form of emergency food aid. Soon, we should enjoy them as an ordinary part of farming and food production.

A version of this column first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Nyasha Mudukuti

Nyasha Mudukuti

Smallholder studying Biotechnology. Helped with virus elimination of sweet potatoes and cassava, and was selected to attend the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa. Studied at Michigan State on a MasterCard scholarship.

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15 thoughts on “Zimbabwe’s Rejection of GMO Food Aid is a Humanitarian Outrage

  1. · April 15, 2016 at 10:46 am

    The basic problem is getting rid of mugabe. the sooner the better. Zimbabwe exported food before he started his bunk.

  2. I remember 10 years ago or more when Mugabe refused to accept GMO corn when Zimbabwe was starving, however, he had no problem taking it once he was allowed to trade the corn HE HAD STORED for the GMO corn. So, he had enough corn STORED to feed the Zimbabwe people but he allowed them to starve until he was given something better to replace it and only then did he release HIS corn to the people! I can’t believe Mugabe is still in power there!

  3. What makes this even worse is that this is the Wests contribution to malnutrition and starvation in developing countries. The well fed scientifically illiterate “back to nature” activists among us have convinced governments to ban this food solution. And many of them think they are doing great things for humanity and the environment, the irony would be amusing if it was not so devastating.

  4. How much did Monsanto pay you to write this?

    • · April 19, 2016 at 9:37 pm

      Agreed. They may be experiencing a drought now but come 30 years at least they will be able to plant seeds instead of having to repurchase them from a monopoly.

    • Informed grownups are trying to have a grown up conversation here Jessica, your comment basically amounts to “derp” and is only helpful in making you look really dumb.

      • I completely disagree. You have a right to disagree with Jessica, but she has a right to believe this is paid advertising basically. I forget the name of it right now, but it’s all the rage. Advertising disguised as journalism. This is undoubtedly a VERY biased article. She just takes it one step further to believe it is part of an active campaign to keep the expansionism. I think your comment was more of a “derp” than hers.

  5. They should be growing and eating Moringa Oleifera instead. Drought resistant and very nutritious.

  6. Perhaps we could supply them with some non-GMO corn *crowds gasps* or maybe this simply about pushing your agenda on nations while they’re weak after all.

  7. Donate the maize to someone elsewhere who appreciates it.

  8. “what millions around the world eat safely”

    What was the control group?

    Studies have shown conventional and organic crops outperform transgenic crops in the worst drought conditions, so why do you need transgenic crops?

    • RichCoulter, My position is that no such studies exist. Furthermore some general “study” such as you imply would never be done, because it makes no sense. About 300 different varieties of transgenic crops have been approved by government regulators in various countries, covering many common food crops grown in various parts of the world. There are a few drought-tolerant varieties that have been developed for a few crops, and those show, on average, superior drought tolerance to conventional crops.
      The need for drought-resistant crops has existed since the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. In spite of farmers and scientists to isolate crop varieties that are more drought resistant, little progress has been made, because drought tolerance requires traits that are different from what is in the plant. Thus, it is only through genetic engineering that we can make significant progress on developing crops that exhibit superior drought tolerance to conventional crops. One way that this has been accomplished can be most easily explained as modifying the plant to significantly change its metabolism during periods of water stress, to conserve nutrients and reduce water loss.
      Genetic engineering is one of the most important technical achievements of the last 30 years, built on incredible advances in our knowledge of basic biology that were initiated with the realization that DNA was the carrier of inherited traits in all organisms. Scientists who study agricultural systems pretty much all agree that existing agricultural production will be insufficient to provide enough food to feed the world’s population in the coming decades. Furthermore, today’s agricultural production could require significantly less resources than it does if all existing technology were utilized. Just one example: organic dairy farms produce, on average only about 3/5 as much milk per cow as conventional dairies. An dairy farms that use rBST produce 5% to 10% more milk per cow than dairies that do not use rBST. Due to irrational and ignorant resistance to the use of rBST, only about 20% of the U.S. dairy herd receives rBST (and my numbers may be off a little, but the trend is clear). As a consequence of the non-use of rBST, the US has about 500,000 more dairy cows than would be needed to meet current consumer demand for dairy products if rBST were used. The anti-rBST campaign is based on total fiction, and is not environmentally sound.
      270 scientific societies, with a membership of 300,000 or more scientists, have made public statements that GMOs are safe for animals and humans to eat. 120 scientific societies have published position papers stating that GMOs are safe, and that they support the continued development and use of GMOs.
      Myself, and tens of thousands of scientists doing bio-medical research around the world, state that GMOs are safe because we understand the science and technology behind genetic engineering. Over 1,700 published scientific papers, together with the sum of biological knowledge about the biochemistry of life, provided zero concern that there is any risk in GMO crops just because their genetics have been altered in some way.
      There are so many ways that we could improve the nutritional quality of fruits, vegetables, and grains if resistance to genetically engineered crops were not a concern. The best thing that could happen to the world’s food supply would be to have biotech companies competing to see who could produce the most nutrient-dense, disease-resistant, and ecologically most efficient food crops, much as we have biotech companies racing to produce the next breakthrough drug to treat some disease. We all are denied the benefits of genetic engineering, some are hurt, and some people die because of the continued baseless opposition to genetic engineering.
      We need public policy based on scientifically verifiable facts, not fictional statements (such as you offered here) that have been advanced by certain organizations that exist solely to scare everyone into buying “organic” so that the companies that support those organizations can make out-sized profits off of the scientific ignorance of many consumers. By repeating statements such as you did here, you are acting as a free mouth piece for a highly unethical campaign that seeks to make a large profit, and control the world’s food supply by playing on ignorance. As a concerned citizen who is willing to speak up, you have a moral responsibility to become educated about the biochemistry and molecular biology that underlies life, and quit repeating statements that are political and marketing slogans based on fear.

  9. But Zimbabwean farmers have always used genetically-modified maize! Ask anyone who has actually ever entered a mealies field, the seeds are purchased from a big company, and the package states clearly that one is not to save any of the seeds from the harvest.

    The real issue here is that Mr Made, like many of the chattering classes commenting here, has no idea what a GMO is. The man does have a degree he bought off the internet, so I am not surprised at his ignorance.

    Nyasha Mudukuti, thank you for challenging what I call the Chicken Licken approach to GMOs in agriculture. Too many people believing and circulating daft conspiracy theories from western lefties. You are a breath of fresh air.

  10. I can’t believe there’s not enough non GMO maize around in and outside Africa to provide Zimbabwe the needed help without violating its sovereign right to decide what to eat and what not.