SHIMABALA, Zambia — After waiting seven hours under the sizzling African sun, John Shikuboni 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 aid agencies say could help ease the starvation and suffering of about 2.5 million Zambians.
The United States, United Nations and humanitarian aid groups insist that the U.S.-donated corn is safe and identical to grain eaten daily by people in the United States, Canada and other countries. But Zambian officials say they fear that 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 in the nation 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, Andrew Natsios, administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, to persuade Mwanawasa to accept the food.
Natsios is expected to meet with Mwanawasa today 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 that about 13 million people in six southern African countries face starvation. Many of them now rely on rations from the U.N. food agency to survive.
U.N. officials say they must have $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 and herbicides.
Southern Africa is not alone in its suspicion of genetically modified food. The European Union bans many modified products, and some European scientists say the crops could cause allergic reactions in consumers.
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, would 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 accepted the grain on the condition that it would be milled before distribution to prevent people from planting it.
But Zambia--a landlocked nation slightly larger than Texas--has been the lone holdout, saying its top scientists had warned about the alleged health risks of gene-altered corn. The country's agriculture minister said Zambia would import non-altered food to feed its hungry.
"There's no way we can help them if they don't accept the food," James Morris, director of the U.N. World Food Program, said from his Rome office Tuesday night. "No one is going to step up with donations of non-GM [genetically modified] corn to fill the gap. This is food we have complete confidence in."
Despite the official skepticism in Zambia and other countries, some prominent African scientists have been lobbying for African nations to embrace genetic engineering to secure the food supply and increase efficiency and crop yields.
"GM crops and foods are just one part of the overall strategy to ensure sufficient food" for Africa, said Jennifer Thomson, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. "Europe has enough food. They don't need GM foods. But we have different needs."
Natsios, the USAID administrator, said he recently was heartened by the Zambian government's decision to let aid workers distribute genetically modified corn to Congolese and Angolan refugees living in camps here.
He said the Zambian government is probably trying to use the gene-altered corn issue to gain leverage in its relations with the United States. He noted that the United States greeted Mwanawasa's election last year with a lukewarm response after the opposition and other groups alleged that the balloting was rigged.