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.

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."

Since there is thus far no evidence that GM foods have a harmful effect on people, and Americans have been eating it for some time, those fears are likely to be superceded by the immediate need for food.

"What I personally find so disturbing about this whole GM debate is the fact that we've been eating it for the past five years," says Allan Reed, director of the United States Agency for International Development in Zambia. "For someone to say that this food is being dumped, or that it has been rejected by the United States, is simply not true."

Even before the aid debate put genetic modification in the headlines, farmers here have been bitterly divided over the issue. Some, like those in the cotton industry, say its introduction is necessary to keep them competitive in the international market. Others in the country's growing organic export market worry that allowing GM crops into the country could close the European Union (EU) market to them. They fear that GM crops will either mix with their own or, at the very least, hurt their image among anti-GM European consumers.

"You can understand the Zambian officials' concern because on one hand donors and others are telling them, 'Look, you've got to improve your agriculture by going for niche markets like the organic market,'" says Rob Tripp, a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute. "On the other hand there's a real fear that they could get cut out of these markets in places like the EU, which are creating increasingly strict GM regulations."

Lovemore Simwanda, who is leading the investigations into GM food for the Zambian National Farmers Union, worries the food shortage is forcing the country to make a decision on GM too quickly and without the proper information.

"The American government wants to push us into accepting this," he says. "They think we've got hunger and that we're going to be forced into accepting their food and ultimately GM."

One potential short-term solution is to mill the corn before distribution, since one of the main concerns in Zambia is that seed intended as food aid will be hoarded and planted next year, potentially affecting local maize crops with GM strains.

Namibia has milled grain for several years due to GM concerns. But such a solution is expensive – as much as $25 per metric ton – and could cause delays in getting the food to people already living on the edge. Additionally, some United Nations officials privately say such a move is opposed by the United States which fears such a compromise implicitly acknowledges a problem with the food.

Even if it is not milled, the American aid poses little threat to Zambia's crops, say experts. American corn is specifically bred for the conditions in the Midwest and is unlikely to thrive in Zambia. Many experts say GM corn is likely already present in Zambia since South Africa is one of the largest producers of GM food in the world and a major trade partner with Zambia.

The GM debate hasn't yet filtered down the road towards Malawi where Mrs. Musopelo and her neighbors are waiting for help. They don't understand what a gene is or how parts of one plant can be inserted into another. There are no words in their language for such technologies. All they knows is that their families are hungry.

"Our survival depends on help from outside," says Mrs. Musopelo's neighbor, Michael Simwinga. "If you don't assist us, our children and ourselves will die."

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