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

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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.

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.

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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.

Mwanawasa will not accept GM food, he explained, because if cross-pollination does occur, it could hurt future exports to Europe, where GM foods are prohibited or require special labeling. "We may be poor and experiencing severe food shortages, but we aren't ready to expose our people to ill-defined risks," he told journalists in Lusaka.

The crackling sound of weevils

On Aug. 12, two truckloads of US corn set off from Lusaka to Shangombo. Each village in the district had little sheds built for the expected food.

But it never came. Catholic Relief Services, a nongovernmental organization and the WFP's implementing partner in the region, received its new directions over the radio. One truck was ordered back to the capital. The other, carrying a few hundred bags of corn, unloaded its precious cargo directly into a locked storage room. There it stayed, watched by two guards with strict instructions not to distribute it.

The villagers gathered around, looked at the locked-up corn, and shook their heads. The district administrator, himself confused about the situation, traveled to the provincial capital Mongu to find out what was going on. A week later he returned, adamant that the GM corn should not be consumed, and yet no more enlightened as to the reasons.

Humphry Katumwa is the storage manager in Senanga. He looks after a warehouse filled to the ceiling with the US-donated corn. If he puts his ear up close to the bags, he can hear crackling sounds. It's weevils, eating away.

"Since it was decided this was not fit for human consumption, it has just been sitting here," he says. "Maybe we will be told to give it to refugees." Some 130,000 Angolan and Congolese in refugee camps in Zambia are still being fed GM food. "When locals come and cry to me about hunger, I tell them this is not good for you. Its just for Angolans," he says.

"It's a strange story. I don't know what is going on," says Richard Nkhoma, coordinator of the Shangombo food-receiving committee. "This one comes, gives some instructions. That one says, 'No' - gives different instructions." Sometimes, he admits, he feels like opening the gates of the small warehouse and letting the people "steal" the food. "I feel too sorry for them," he says. In October, villagers from Mumbwa, 30 miles west of Lusaka, took more than 500 bags of GM corn.

Zambia is the only country to reject the food aid outright, but Zimbabwe, Malawi, Lesotho, and Mozambique all expressed concern over the imports. When those countries finally decided to accept the aid, it was on condition that it would only be distributed after milling so as to prevent people from planting the seeds and risking cross-pollination.

Leaving with hands empty

The WFP, which has reassured Zambia and other countries that GM food is safe to eat, nonetheless maintains the position that it will not force any country to accept the donations and will do everything possible to bridge the food gap by substituting other food for the US donated GM corn. But this is no easy task.

"It is the right of every government to reject the corn, but we cannot then replace that fully with different food," says Gerard Van Dijk, the WFP country director in Malawi. "More than 70 percent of our donations come from the US." With growing food crises in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and with only 37 percent of its Southern African appeal met, the WFP says that finding additional donor sources will be difficult.

On the outskirts of the Shangombo district sits a tiny village called Natakoma. The food committee here, hearing that aid was coming, built a special holding hut. These days, Sapu Phebbian, the committee coordinator, stands outside the hut and faces the hungry with empty hands. Every day the elderly, sick, and frail from the surrounding villages show up to see if the food has arrived. They walk here. Wait. Shoo the flies away from their eyes and mouths. Place their hands atop their heads to shield themselves from the sun. And walk home with nothing. "The problem is with the GM poison," says Phebbian. "It shortens human life. I would not eat it - for I could die."

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