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Senate Foreign Relations Committee Holds Hearing on World Hunger Report

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Location: Washington, DC

HAGEL:

Mr. Chairman, thank you and good morning. Thank you, gentlemen, for appearing before the committee this morning.

Mr. Morris and Mr. Natsios, would you address the issue of genetically modified agriculture products? Some governments in Africa have refused genetically modified corn and I would appreciate your views on this, especially at a time as you have both very clearly articulated. We have 24,000 people a day dying around the world of hunger and certain governments, it is my understanding, are disallowing genetically modified agriculture products into their countries.

Mr. Morris, we'll start with you.

MORRIS:

Thank you, sir.

Only Zambia in Africa absolutely will not permit genetically modified food to come in the country. We've been using genetically modified biotech crops/food for many, many years. Our basic policy is that when we buy food from a country or a country gives us food, we ask them to certify that it meets the health and safety standards for consumption by their own citizens.

We then double check those representations against something that WHO and FAO have called the codex alimentarius that speaks to food security, food safety. Once those certifications are made, we turn to the country, the recipient country, the country that needs the food and we make these representations. We say, you're a sovereign country. You have the right to say, yes, we want this, no we don't.

We have absolute confidence that there is no risk; there is no safety issue. WHO, FAO and WFP have gone on record saying that we have confidence in this.

There is, and I don't understand it as well as I wish that I did, there is an amazing amount of mythology or folklore in parts of the world that has frightened people to death about the use of genetically modified food. From a Western perspective, we would say that it is ludicrous and almost silly, but it's real in parts of the world where those views exist. People are concerned that they will have a higher tendency to be infected with HIV-AIDS or they won't be able to bear children, they'll lose their impotency. And people are frightened.

And so, we have, in the beginning of the southern Africa crisis, 75 percent of what we had to work with had a biotech GM component to it—what we get from the U.S., what we get from Canada, what we get from South America and what we get from South Africa. This is a worldwide phenomenon, although the U.S. is the most generous provider of the group.

We've worked out a system in the six countries, in five of the six countries where the genetically modified product is milled and once it is milled, it can't be eaten by animals or can't be planted for agricultural purposes. That takes away part of the concern.

Now, milling comes at a huge expense. There's not milling capacity in southern Africa. The shelf life is shorter than the regular stuff. There are nutritional issues. There are capacity issues. If you mill something, you only end up with 75 percent of the aggregate that you started with and it is very expensive.

I don't know how the world is going to bring comfort to folks who are troubled by this issue. The president of Zambia sent a group at Andrew's invitation, a group of scientists to the U.S., to the U.K., to Norway, to Belgium to look at these issues and we actually thought they would come back persuaded that there was no risk. They did not change their mind.

Now, we have the obligation to feed the hungry poor and we found ways in Zambia to the credit of our extraordinary staff to find non-GM food and to find food from local purchases to feed the people so that we haven't had the catastrophe. But if every country would have taken the Zambian position, we would have been out of business.

The USDA, the FDA, EPA, all certify in this country that the stuff is safe. The French Academy in the last few weeks has certified that the stuff is safe. The European community has said that the seven varieties of maize that we use primarily, they have no problem with it, that they are much more concerned about hoof and foot and mouth disease than they are this issue.

But you are dealing with something that is very hard to understand where it comes from and where trying to make the rational case just doesn't work all the time. Some of our strongest supporters would come to me and say, "Well, Jim, you ought to really be able to give the recipients a cafeteria". If they want it, fine. If they don't want it, you have to get something else. That's not just realistic in a world that has as many problems as we have with people trying to be fed.

So, I am hopeful that somehow the scientific community will find a way to work with the principle U.N. agencies. Once again, WHO, FAO, WFP have no problem with this. We've pushed as hard as we can, but at the end of the day, we can't force somebody to do something.

But you have put your finger on—and, the fact that the stuff is going to continue to—there's going to be more of it produced over the long haul because it does—it is good for the environment, it's good for yield. It is good for health. I mean, this is a marvelous invention that is, in fact, helped to save the world through the Green Revolution in the next generations.
So, we've got something that's going to be a huge influence overhang on the world for a long period of time and we've got to find a way to give some comfort to people who are afraid of it.

HAGEL:

Well, thank you and stay with it. We are grateful for your efforts. Mr. Natsios, would you like to add anything?

NATSIOS:

Yes. I agree with everything that Jim just said. Let me add just a couple of points. One is, one of our agricultural strategies in Africa is to introduce biotech research capacity in Africa, because we believe the food security crisis that Africa is facing generally, that one answer to that, not the only answer, one answer, it biotechnology.

Any many African agricultural scientists want us to do that and the heads of state want it. So, there is an illusion that the Africans are opposed—it's the exact opposite. In fact, they are asking us to come in.

We opened a biotech research facility as part of the ministry of agriculture in Egypt and it is having a revolutionary effect on Egyptian agriculture in a very good sense.

Kenya and Nigeria are far ahead in this research and they want our continued assistance to upgrade their capacity to do this research. Of course, the Danforth Center in St. Louis I visited is an extraordinary center of research and we are working with many of the biotech research institutions in the United States and the private sector and the university sector to try to bring this technology to the developing world, because Jim is right. It is a miraculous thing.

It is unfortunately woven into the trade disputes with Europe and that is, unfortunately, what is causing, I think, a lot of this, including some of the reluctance in Africa to accept this. There are two issues in Africa that have been brought up.

They are really separate issues. One is the health issue. And I have to just say that we've been eating this food—I've told people the president eats on his table, our Congress eats it every morning when they eat their cornflakes, because a third of our corn crop is biotech now. We've been eating it for seven years.

I am unaware of any lawsuit and we are a very litigious society, as you know, Senator. Someone would have sued someone if there was a health issue surrounding this. And there isn't any. I mean, there really isn't. And all of the scientific research institutions around the world, the WHO, the World Food Programme, all these African-based—have all said the same thing.

This is safe. But there are still these rumors. I think it has to do something the trade dispute.

The second issue, which I think is more remote, frankly, is that if the food aid is sent in an emergency, people will take the seed and plant it and then it will cross with the traditional varieties and they won't be able to export their foods.

Well, the first thing is, there isn't a huge amount of maize that is being exported from Africa to Europe. In fact, there is none as far as I know. Number two, the major source of export, even within the continent is South Africa, nine percent of their crop commingled with their traditional variety in corn, is genetically modified and it is dramatically increasing because the farmers want it very badly.

There is an effort by some green groups in South Africa to stop this and the farmers ran over them. They said we want this. It's increasing yields 200 to 300 percent. We don't use pesticides. We don't have to use as much fertilizer. It is increasing our family incomes, so it is a big controversy in a good sense, because they are with us on this issue.

The reality is, I have never seen a famine, anywhere a food crisis anywhere in the world where people take food and plant it for very good reason. Most of them don't think they are going to survive until the next crop is harvested. Why would they plant the food aid?

Our big problem is that we give them seed to plant and they eat it because they are so hungry. I have never seen that as a risk. The second problem is, the amount of cross-fertilization that would take place with traditional varieties is almost non-existent, even if they did plant all of it.

Tests have been done on this and it's a fallacious argument. There is no empirical evidence that this is a risk, but people are saying, we won't be able to export our food, that kind of thing.

The other thing is people—Jim and I were down at the same time in southern Africa. I heard some of the most absurd arguments. The seed planted from corn will cross-fertilize with our avocado trees. I said, the only seed that is cross-fertilized with corn is other corn. You can't take corn and cross-fertilize it even with another cereal. It only can be with the same category of food, corn-to-corn, wheat-to- wheat.

But you tell that to people and they don't understand it. The other thing I was told in one country that has a lot of Muslims in it is that the Americans have cross-fertilized pig genes into the corn and so there is now pork genes in our corn.

And I said, I am not aware of any animal genes ever being introduced into a plant. I heard there was discussion of fish gene that might be put into tomato, but it was never done. So, there is no anywhere in the world.

But you hear these stories and when you laugh, they get sort of offended. I said, well, who told you these things. And it is these rumors and again, I think it is part of the trade dispute that is going on.

HAGEL:

Well, I am grateful, as the committee is for both of your leadership in these areas. Please extend our thanks to your people. We are most appreciative for what they do.

Mr. Natsios, you were getting into areas that only our chairman understands here with his intense, deep agriculture background so you lost me at the last paragraph, even though I am from Nebraska. Only Senator Lugar understands these things so thank you very much.

Senator Lugar.

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