You read about the recent decision by the Zambian government to reject food aid from the United States because the 100,000-ton shipment contained some genetically modified corn.

The president of the African nation said it would present health risks and might jeopardize Zambia's exports of corn to the European Community, which has been nattering about genetically modified crops for a long while. The decision was supported by two Jesuit organizations, which claimed the corn could have an adverse impact on those eating it and that, were some to be planted rather than consumed, it could contaminate corn varieties being grown in the area.

All the while the government and the Jesuits were standing on nebulous principle, an estimated 1.3 million Zambians were at risk of starvation as a result of a horrid drought that has decimated crop production.

A recently-completed report by both European and American scholars challenges the Jesuits' contention, saying their position “cannot be defended by science.” Nor, said Piero Morandini, a plant biology researcher at the University of Milan, Italy, and one of eight authors of the report, can their position be supported by Judeo-Christian teachings. “How can this group reject food aid,” he asks, “knowing that many Zambians could die of starvation without it?”

The report, To Die or Not to Die: This is the Problem, terms the refusal “politics — not science,” and provides detailed rebuttal of the “pseudo-scientific” arguments by the Jesuits. “Their own documents show they are more concerned about protecting economic interests, or soil micro-organisms, than human lives,” said Drew Kershen, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma. “And their environmental concerns are based on ideology, rather than available evidence.”

The report points out the irony that over 18,000 tons of genetically modified food from the United States was distributed in Zambia during a previous crisis in 2001, and “no health or economic concerns were raised… nor did any occur.”

The study by the Jesuits, the report says, “is not a scientific document; represents the partial interests of some Zambian economic groups; manipulates scientific data to support its thesis; does not show a knowledge of the topic sufficient to draw an informed judgment; is based on an idea of Nature foreign to the Hebrew-Christian tradition; contradicts the position of the Catholic church toward agricultural biotechnology; and seeks to justify starvation.”

Said Wayne Parrott, a professor and plant geneticist at the University of Georgia: “Those of us who are Catholic fear that the Zambian Jesuits are squandering the reputation of the church for goals that are political, not theological.”

“Starvation in Zambia is no longer a possibility, but a reality,” the report concludes. “We consider it to be an unforgivable mistake to let people suffer famine for the reasons expressed in the (Jesuits') document. We urge the Church to raise its voice to demand the acceptance of the food by the local government.”

All to no avail, apparently: On Oct. 29, the Zambian government announced its continued refusal of the corn “in view of the current scientific uncertainty surrounding the issue.”