Awful incentives

Kerry Howley writes about GM food in Africa:

In May 2002, in the midst of a severe food shortage in sub-Saharan Africa, the government of Zimbabwe turned away 10,000 tons of corn from the World Food Program (WFP). The WFP then diverted the food to other countries, including Zambia, where 2.5 million people were in need. The Zambian government locked away the corn, banned its distribution, and stopped another shipment on its way to the country. “Simply because my people are hungry,” President Levy Mwanawasa later said, “is no justification to give them poison.”

The corn came from farms in the United States, where most corn produced—and consumed—comes from seeds that have been engineered to resist some pests, and thus qualifies as genetically modified. Throughout the 90s, genetically modified foods were seen as holding promise for the farmers of Africa, so long as multinationals would invest in developing superior African crops rather than extend the technology only to the rich. When Zambia and Zimbabwe turned away food aid, simmering controversy over the crops themselves brimmed over and seeped into almost every African state. Cast as toxic to humans, destructive to the environment, and part of a corporate plot to immiserate the poor, cutting edge farming technology is most feared where it is most needed.

My understanding at the time was that this was even worse than ignorance: Africans keep out relief grain because they know that farmers will hold some of it for seed. They were afraid that if GM entered the food chain, they would that never, ever be able to export any plant products to Europe because of their stringent regulations (these have, I believe, been somewhat relaxed). So even if the president of Zambia knew GM was harmless, he couldn't risk permanently impairing his country's economic guture.