Two Sides of Human Nature
Once again, ideology stands in the way of famine relief.
November 27, 2002
by Dennis T. Avery
The last century brought the world ideologically motivated famines in Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and currently in Kim Jung Il’s North Korea.
Now, Greenpeace and other environmental activist groups are giving us another ideological famine, this time in southern Africa. They’re doing so by demonizing American corn, the only major food aid available for the drought-stricken people of southern Africa.
As the dying starts in Zambia and Zimbabwe, U.S. food aid and Greenpeace’s reaction vividly illustrate some of the contradictions in human nature:
The compassionate, society-building side of humanity was on display October 23 when Tony Hall, America’s ambassador to the United Nations hunger agencies, urged Zimbabwe to accept a massive flow of American food aid. America is the world’s largest producer and donor of corn, the staple food of southern Africa. Hall estimates that Zimbabwe’s desperate, wasted hunger victims may need 600,000 tons of food by next March.
Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are illustrating the darker, “get-them-before-they-get-you” aspect of human nature. The president of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa, says they’ve told him that U.S. biotech corn is “poison,” and he is therefore refusing to distribute it to more than two million famine-threatened Zambians. Some of these hungry people, saying that their only alternative was to boil poisonous roots for food, broke into warehouses in Zambia’s capital city and “liberated” tons of U.S. corn stored there. Police forcibly retrieved most of it.
Because African governments now fear Western food aid, Hall warns that multitudes of Africans will die, and the United States may be unable to prevent it. There is no need whatever for this to happen. Biotech corn has been tested more intensively than virtually any food product in history, and it has been demonstrated safe in every manner currently known to science and medicine. Since biotech corn has been approved as safe by three different U.S. government agencies, we don’t segregate biotech grain from its conventional counterpart. This means that there is little U.S. corn that can be guaranteed to be biotech-free.
The governments of Zimbabwe and Mozambique also rejected biotech corn at first, but they then changed their minds and demanded that the corn be milled before distribution. Unfortunately, milling sharply slows food aid because there are not enough mills in the region. (Most of the region’s corn is ground by hand in the villages.) Milled corn is also more likely to become moldy before it reaches the hungry. The governments’ excuse is that unmilled kernels of U.S. corn might “contaminate” the local corn and thus endanger African corn exports to Europe (which have never occurred).
Jean Ziegler, a “United Nations special investigator for food” (and Swiss socialist politician) recently told the UN that the eco-radicals’ campaign against biotech food aid is valid. He claims that big corporations have more to gain from spreading biotech corn in the developing world than the poor countries gain by preventing starvation.
A senior humanitarian aid official described Mr. Zeigler’s position as “morally bankrupt.” But Mr. Zeigler and Greenpeace both represent an important element of First World thinking. In the old days, when food was chronically scarce, the “get mine first” attitude justified the strong taking food from the weak, “because the weak will die anyway.” In today’s world, where there’s overall food adequacy, selfishness is justified by the false claim that human overpopulation is using up all the resources and destroying the wildlife.
After the Green Revolution of the 1960s tripled crop yields and ended the threat of massive famine in Asia, biologist Paul Ehrlich went on late-night TV to announce that high-yield crops would simply unleash massive overpopulation. Ehrlich immediately became a hero among affluent Western intellectuals who could not understand how billions of little brown and yellow people could become rich unless the rich Westerners’ second cars and vacation homes were taken away.
But nothing like that happened; quite the contrary, in fact. High-yield food security has stabilized Third World populations faster than we thought possible in 1960. The countries where populations are still rising rapidly (including many in Africa) are those where there has been no Green Revolution. They are also the places where wildlife is still most at risk.
New technology has made such resources as oil and copper even more abundant, and it has created new resources such as computer chips (from sand) and wireless phones. This year, Chinese families will buy a million cars, not one of them using U.S. iron ore.
It is inhumane and unconscionable to frighten African countries into starving their own people. It is cowardly to mask elite First World selfishness as concern for resources and the environment. Those of us who are grateful for our national abundance want to help the starving people in Africa. When will the eco-radicals stop standing in the way?
Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.