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Zambian Government Refuses U.S. Donations of Gene-Altered Corn

By Davan Maharaj and Anthony Mukwita
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- shimabala, Zambia

After waiting for seven hours under the sizzling African sun, John Shikuboni had hoped to fill his empty sack with free corn stored in a warehouse here.

But an aid official told Shikuboni and about 200 other hungry men, women and children that he could no longer distribute the corn because the Zambian government had ruled that the genetically modified grain was not safe for them.

“Please give us the food,” pleaded an elderly blind man wearing a threadbare shirt. “We don’t care if it is poisonous because we are dying anyway.”

Many Zambians in rural areas have resorted to eating leaves, twigs and even poisonous berries and nuts to cope with the worst food crisis in a decade hitting southern Africa. Still, their government is refusing to accept donations of genetically modified corn that the United Nations and other aid agencies say could help ease the starvation and suffering of about 2.5 million Zambians.

The United States, United Nations and humanitarian groups insist that the U.S.-donated corn is safe and identical to grain consumed daily by people in the United States, Canada and other countries. But Zambian officials say they fear the gene-altered corn poses health risks to their citizens.

“We would rather starve than get something toxic,” said Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who declared a food emergency here three months ago.

Privately, aid officials say the Zambian government is looking a gift horse in the mouth.

The Bush administration has dispatched to Zambia its top aid official, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Andrew Natsios, to persuade Mwanawasa to accept the food.

Wednesday, Natsios is expected to meet Mwanawasa in Lusaka, the Zambian capital.

“I’m going to tell him he needs to reverse that decision,” Natsios said in a telephone interview. “It’s endangering people’s lives and we’re going to have massive losses of life if this policy remains in place.”

A savage confluence of events -- drought, bad governance and disease -- means about 13 million people in six southern Africa countries face starvation. Many of them now rely on rations from the U.N. food agency to survive.

U.N. officials say they need $500 million to avert a famine. So far, the United States has been the most willing donor, shipping a few hundred thousand tons of food to southern Africa.

But the U.S. gifts have ignited a debate in the region about the safety of grain whose genes have been modified to produce higher yields and bolster resistance to drought, diseases or herbicides.

Leaders of several African countries say they find themselves in a dilemma: Feed their people food they believe causes allergic reactions or let them die. Agricultural officials also worry that the grain would be planted and, through cross-pollination, contaminate their natural varieties.

Lesotho, Malawi and Swaziland agreed to accept the U.S. donations after the World Health Organization -- and several U.S. agencies -- certified the U.S. corn as safe. Zimbabwe and Mozambique also accepted the grain on the condition that it would be milled before distribution to prevent people from planting it.