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Some Africans prefer hunger to a diet of gene-altered corn

By Danna Harman / November 14, 2002

This is not the same old story of drought equals famine in Africa. This time, there is hunger in the huts for reasons that have little to do with the weather.

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Christian Science Monitor correspondent Danna Harman and staff photographer Andy Nelson spent three weeks traveling in Southern Africa, delving into the causes of the growing food crisis. Amid the desperation, they found a determination to address the primarily manmade problems. This is the third in a four-part series.

For 24 days, the crew of the Liberty Grace saw nothing but endless Atlantic Ocean, a handful of whales, thousands of dolphins, and each other. The hum of engines buzzed in their ears constantly. The wind hammered them as they took long shifts on deck.

On the three-week journey from Louisiana to the ports of East Africa, the ship's chief engineer learned to play the electric piano. Capt. John Codispoti got through some Tom Clancy paperbacks, and the cook perfected his chili-dog recipe.

But no one thought much about the cargo - 50,000 tons of genetically modified (GM) corn being taken to help some of the 14.5 million hungry men, women, and children facing food shortages in Southern Africa.

"Sometimes I wonder about the hungry people out there and this corn we are shipping in," says Mr. Codispoti. "But we never see them, so it's hard to imagine."

What also may be hard for this American crew to imagine is that other shipments of corn - genetically modified, just like the corn in countless US products - is rotting in storehouses in Zambia while the people there go hungry. Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has rejected US corn because he believes that it poses health risks to his people.

While science has yet to prove any health problems caused by GM corn, misinformation has clouded the debate. Now many hungry Africans don't know what to think of it.

Radios, but no batteries

There are no paved roads in Shangombo, Zambia. Just miles upon miles of dirt paths crisscrossing the dry savanna. Villagers farm or fish in the swamps by day, and sit around their thatched huts in the evenings, swatting mosquitoes as hot days turn into cool nights.

Neither electricity nor phone lines run here. Visitors are rare, and most of those fortunate enough to own radios have no money to buy batteries. Yet, somehow, everyone here has heard something of the debate about genetically modified corn raging in the capital, Lusaka, some 500 bumpy miles away.

Information, however, is often confused. Farmer Victor Bwalia heard that GM corn makes women infertile. His neighbor told him. Meanwhile, Amroando Dandola, who makes flip-flops, thinks it infects people with HIV/AIDS. That is what his grandfather, Augustine, thinks, too.

"It is bad. That is for sure," says Richwell Nalumwe, a fisherman who can't feed his family. "We heard that in the Southern Province some people who ate it are now suffering. Plenty, plenty problems over there."

After two years of drought, people here are hungry. Boys dive for mancada roots in the swamp. Men and women go into the forests looking for nuts and berries to boil. Countrywide, according to the World Food Program (WFP), 2.9 million Zambians are in need of food aid. Some 250 tons of it, more then half of which were donated by the US, were headed for Zambia when Mr. Mwanawasa decided, in mid-August, to reject it.

Genetically modifying crops involves splicing genes from one organism into an unrelated crop in order to insert traits such as insect resistance or drought tolerance. The US, as well as other large grain-producing countries such as Argentina, Canada, and China, has begun using this technology extensively in recent years. Most Americans eat GM food every day.

But the technology is contentious. Some say it's so new that the health risks are unknown. Others say that if planted, GM crops could potentially infect a country's native crops and cause problems down the road.