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

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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.

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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."