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 You are in: Under Secretary for Economic, Energy and Agricultural Affairs > Bureau of Economic, Energy and Business Affairs > All Remarks and Releases > Fact Sheets > 2002
Fact Sheet
Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs
Washington, DC
December 2, 2002

Agricultural Development and Trade Issues for Bio-Engineered Crops in U.S. Food Aid Donations

This is one of three fact sheets designed to provide information to address concerns about the presence of bio-engineered crops in U.S. food aid. The U.S. Government respects the rights of countries to make their own decisions about the acceptance of food aid. Further, we are committed to providing information and technical assistance to governments who have raised concerns about bio-engineered crops in food aid.

U.S. Food Aid May Contain Bio-Engineered Crops

Foods produced with modern biotechnology, such as maize (corn) and soybeans, have been rapidly adopted by U.S. farmers since their introduction in 1996. In recent years, up to one-third of U.S. corn acreage and three-quarters of U.S. soybean acreage has been planted with bio-engineered varieties. In the U.S. commodity marketing system, harvested grain and oilseeds from many sources are commonly mixed at several points, and bio-engineered crops are not generally separated from non-bio-engineered crops. Systems to segregate non-bio-engineered crops from the field to the market are costly and have been implemented on a very limited scale in the United States. Approximately 1-2% of corn and 2% of soybean production are currently grown and marketed under such systems, for high-value products and markets. Commodity shipments for food aid, as well as product destined for domestic and export food and feed uses, may contain mixed bio-engineered and non-bio-engineered crops.

U.S. farmers have adopted crop varieties bio-engineered to be resistant to insects, tolerant to herbicides, or both. Insect resistance is derived from a soil bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Crop plants have been engineered to produce Bt proteins that are toxic to certain insects but are safe for humans and other organisms. Sprayable Bt insecticides are commonly used by organic farmers. Herbicide tolerance is also derived from soil bacteria. Herbicide tolerant crops are engineered to withstand the use of very effective herbicides that would otherwise harm the crop.

Agricultural Development and Trade

The United States has been a major donor of food aid to countries experiencing food shortages for several decades. Currently, the only whole grain in U.S. food aid donations that might be bio-engineered is maize. Some governments and other groups in recipient countries have raised concerns about the potential impact that accepting food aid donations containing bio-engineered whole kernel maize might have on local agricultural systems, either due to displacement of locally adapted varieties, restrictions on replanting seeds, or adverse consequences for trade with European Union countries. We believe that the chances are very remote that U.S. food aid would adversely affect agriculture in developing countries.

Planting Food Aid Grain

Food aid grain is intended for immediate consumption and is not intended for planting. However, locally harvested seed that had been stored for planting in the next season is likely to have been consumed as food. If food aid maize is planted in Africa, it will only out-cross (or cross-pollinate) with other maize varieties, and not with other local plants. The frequency of out-crossing to domestic maize in Africa will be low unless the food aid grain is planted close to or in fields with domestic maize. Maize pollen is relatively heavy and large, and most lands close to the parent plant. The pollen desiccates quickly, losing viability within two hours.

Furthermore, bio-engineered maize varieties adapted for the U.S. climate and growing conditions will likely not grow well in Africa, limiting their ability to cross-pollinate with local maize varieties. In addition, U.S. food aid corn is comprised of hybrid varieties, which, if replanted, tend not to grow well due to loss of vigor. Africans have a strong preference for eating white maize, and will seek to plant white maize rather than the yellow maize varieties provided through U.S. food aid shipments. The U.S. government, in cooperation with international organizations, plans to provide locally-adapted, quality, white maize seed to plant for the next growing season that would outperform food aid grain if planted.

Replanting Seed

In the case that food aid grain is planted, there are no restrictions on replanting the harvested seed. From a legal standpoint, patents on bio-engineered varieties are geographically limited and do not extend to the recipient countries of food aid. Further, although the maize varieties provided in food aid shipments would be expected to perform poorly in African growing conditions, as described above, there have been no genetic modifications to the seeds that would make it impossible to grow a crop. So-called "terminator technology" that renders harvested seed sterile has not been fully developed or implemented anywhere in the world.

Trade With European Union

The potential mixing of bio-engineered maize with non-bio-engineered maize is unlikely to impact trade with the European Union. Few African countries export maize to Europe, and there are no limitations on the export of livestock that have been fed bio-engineered feed to Europe or other countries. The European Union has approved the import of many bio-engineered maize varieties. The European Union recently issued a press release clarifying its position on bio-engineered food, in response to concerns by African governments:

Community legislation permits the imports of authorized varieties of GM [bio-engineered] maize for human consumption. Food produced from a total of five GM maize varieties is approved for human consumption in the EU…. [T]he fact that a country grows GM maize has no impact on its ability to export other agricultural products to the EU… including vegetables, flowers, coffee, etc. Furthermore, eggs, milk and other products from animals fed on GM products are not covered by current legislation.
     --"EC Clarifies Its Position on GMO’s," EU Press Release, August 28, 2002

For more information:

On food aid programs:

UN World Food Program: www.wfp.org

U.S. Agency for International Development Food for Peace Program: www.usaid.gov/hum_response/ffp/

Also see fact sheets on:
-- Environmental Considerations for Bio-Engineered Crops in U.S. Food Aid Donations;
-- Food Safety Assessments for Bio-Engineered Crops in U.S. Food Aid Donations.

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