Even hungry Africa wary of gene-modified food
A shipment of grain sits in South Africa as 12 million people in the region face shortages.
Under a grass-thatched shelter just off the main road that heads east from Lusaka, Josephine Musopelo waits with neighbors for the return of her husband. Two days ago, he left for Zambia's capital city, some 35 miles away, in search of food for his hungry village.Skip to next paragraph
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People here remember the yellow corn distributed seven years ago during the area's last major drought, and Mrs. Musopelo's husband has gone to find its source. In Southern Africa, where most people eat white corn, the yellow variety is considered animal feed, not fit for human consumption. But Musopelo is desperate.
"If we eat this pitiful stuff," she says, gesturing at a bag of small fruits the family has been pounding into mash for the children, "we will eat anything."
But will they eat genetically modified (GM) corn? That's the question her country's leaders are hotly debating as a shipment, partially filled with GM corn, sits 1,000 miles away in a South African port.
Until now, the scientific debate over the risks, and benefits, of GM foods was something fought over largely in the streets of Paris and the dinner tables of Iowa. Suddenly, it is a life and death decision for ordinary Zambians, and it threatens to derail international efforts to avert a famine in South- ern Africa. The governments of countries like Zambia find themselves in the difficult position of either accepting a technology into their country before they have determined if it's safe, or turning away grain that could save lives now.
The US has offered to provide half of what Zambia needs to feed those who are hungry , and one-third of what is needed regionally. At least some of that is corn that has been genetically modified.
Although none of the seven African countries targeted for emergency food aid has officially said they will reject American aid, at least one shipment of food has already been diverted from Zimbabwe, in part due to GM concerns. Several other countries are seriously considering turning away the food. Zambia's president, Levy Manawasa, said last week that despite its need, his country would not accept American food aid if it cannot be proven safe.
People have been selectively breeding crops for thousands of years to improve yields or adapt plants to new environments. New technology now allows the genes from one organism to be inserted into another.
But the technology is controversial. Some scientists, particularly in Europe, worry that GM food could cause allergic reactions in humans or that it could pollute the environment by cross pollinating with natural varieties. Others say it could provide the solution to feeding the world's hungry by making plants that are drought and pest resistant.
On the streets of Lusaka, where much of the debate is fueled by misinformation and public hysteria, people are primarily concerned about whether the food will make them sick.
In a poor rural settlement on the outskirts of Lusaka, George Chilumbo is skeptical of the help pouring in for the estimated 2.3 million people in Zambia, and more than 12 million regionally, tottering on the edge of starvation. Mr. Chilumbo doesn't understand the details of genetic modification. All he knows is that some people think the food could be dangerous.
"We think that if we eat that food, bad things could happen to us, like cancers could grow in our stomachs," he says, to the nods of his friends. "I would rather starve than eat that food."