three million Zimbabweans face a worsening food shortage, the southern
African nation last month rejected a U.S. offer of 10,000 metric tons of
whole grain corn because the shipment might contain genetically modified
The U.S. government redirected the gift to other hungry African
nations after Zimbabwe refused to waive a requirement that imported
grain be certified as non-genetically modified organisms. The U.S.
government does not segregate GMO grains from conventional crops.
Zimbabwe's reluctance to accept whole-kernel U.S. corn poses an
uncomfortable challenge to humanitarian officials planning for an
impending food emergency in southern Africa, where 19 million people in
six countries face hunger because of drought and mismanagement of food
The United States, with its awesome agricultural output, is by far
the largest donor to the U.N. World Food Program, the agency that
distributes food to needy countries. But U.S. grain is not suitable for
Zimbabwe, which has potentially the largest food deficit in southern
Though officials in Zimbabwe say they are aware that the U.S.
government has determined these foods to be safe, they are reluctant to
accept them without their own testing.
U.N. representatives, African officials, and emissaries from donor
countries are scheduled to meet in Johannesburg this week to sort out
how food from producing countries will be divvied up in the coming
"We don't make judgment calls on GMOs, as long as the food
passes safety standards," said Brenda Barton, a spokeswoman for the
World Food Program. "We're really trying to stay out of the middle
of this debate."
Zimbabwe's neighbors are hoping they will benefit with larger
allocations of U.S. maize, as corn is called here.
"If Zimbabwe doesn't want the maize, there are plenty of people
here willing to accept it," said Nick Osborne, the country
representative of Care International in Malawi, where humanitarian
officials expect severe food shortages by September, after a second
successive crop failure from drought.
Food imports to Zimbabwe are generally not an issue, because
Zimbabwe's farmers usually produce a surplus. But the country of 12
million people has been hit by a triple whammy this year - a serious
drought, the devastation of thousands of white commercial farms by
government-backed militants, and the government's sell-off of its grain
The result: Zimbabwe is expected to produce only a quarter of its
maize crop this year, and will require imports of 1.6 million metric
tons. Corn is the principal staple crop in southern Africa; in poor
countries like Malawi, maize accounts for up to 70 percent of a rural
Zimbabwe imposed the restrictions on genetically engineered food two
years ago, partly to support its commercial farmers. Zimbabwe exported
beef and ostrich to Europe, where consumers demand that meat come from
livestock that has not been fed with the engineered grain.
With Zimbabwe's agricultural sector in turmoil because of the
government's takeover of many white-owned commercial farms, the African
nation last year stopped exporting meat to Europe.
"The Europeans are quite paranoid about GMOs, and we were
concerned about keeping our markets," said Paul d'Hotman, chief
executive officer of the Zimbabwe Cattle Producers Association.
"But it's all academic now."
Zimbabwe's commercial farmers face soaring prices for livestock feed,
and have asked the government to relax the restrictions on importing
genetically engineered grain. Crops such as corn are typically modified
to resist disease or drought.
The government is concerned that donated genetically modified,
whole-kernel corn might be replanted in Zimbabwe, starting an
irreversible propagation of untested grain.
"It is not so easy to say we're going to suspend our regulations
because we have a food emergency," said Abisa Mafa, registrar of
the Research Council of Zimbabwe's biosafety board.
Yet the Zimbabwean government is willing to feed genetically
engineered grain to its population. This year, it has accepted nearly 43
metric tons of U.S. corn meal and corn-soy milk worth $27.5 million that
the Americans could not certify was non-GMO. Zimbabwe says corn meal and
corn-soy milk are acceptable because they have already been processed
and cannot be planted to grow crops.
But donor nations are unlikely to be able to fill Zimbabwe's vast
needs with milled maize, which is more expensive than whole-kernel corn,
Mafa said. Zimbabwe might be willing to accept whole U.S. grain as long
as it was milled as soon as it entered the country to prevent it from
D'Hotman, the livestock producer, said he believed it was unlikely
that much of the imported modified grain would get set aside as seed.
"People are hungry, and when they're hungry, they're going to
eat the grain and not plant it."