- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 9, 2003

BOSTON 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 this autumn, delving into the causes of the growing food crisis.
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 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," said Capt. 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 U.S. products is rotting in storehouses in Zambia while the people there go hungry. Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa has rejected corn from the United States because he believes it poses health risks to his people.
While science has yet to find any health problems caused by genetically modified corn, misinformation has clouded the debate. Now many hungry Africans don't know what to think of it.
There are no paved roads in the township of 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 in the capital, Lusaka, some 500 bumpy miles away.
Information, however, is often unreliable. Farmer Victor Bwalia heard that genetically modified 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," said 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 it donated by the United States, was headed for Zambia when Mr. Mwanawasa, the Zambian president, 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 United States as well as other large grain-producing countries like Argentina, Canada and China has begun using this technology extensively in recent years. Most Americans eat genetically modified food every day.
But the technology raises concerns. Some say it's so new that the health risks are unknown. Others say that if planted, genetically modified crops could infect a country's native crops and cause problems down the road.
Mr. Mwanawasa said he will not accept genetically modified food, because if cross-pollination does occur, it could hurt future exports to the European Union, where genetically modified 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 reporters in Lusaka.
On Aug. 12, two truckloads of U.S. 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 round, 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, insisting that the genetically modified corn should not be consumed, 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 U.S.-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 said. "Maybe we will be told to give it to refugees." Some 130,000 Angolans and Congolese in refugee camps in Zambia are still being fed genetically modified food. "When locals come and cry to me about hunger, I tell them this is not good for you. It's just for Angolans," he said.
"It's a strange story. I don't know what is going on," said Richard Nkhoma, coordinator of the Shangombo food-receiving committee

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