JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - The U.S.-chartered cargo ship Liberty Star dropped anchor in South Africa last week loaded with enough emergency food aid to feed 2.4 million people for a month. For a drought-stricken region with 13 million people facing starvation, its arrival should have been a cause for celebration.
But the ship's American-produced cargo has been greeted mostly by suspicion and controversy - because the 36,000 metric tons of food aid includes genetically modified corn.
Engineered to resist pests, survive dry spells and produce greater yields, the grain is widely consumed in America. In Africa, however, the corn is less welcomed, and its arrival is renewing debate over the safety of genetically engineered food.
Zambia and Zimbabwe - two southern African nations grappling with widespread food shortages - are blocking the shipment of the grain to their countries, fearing that it may threaten the health of their people, the environment and their agriculture industries.
The United States insists that the corn is safe. Three other southern African nations also teetering on the brink of a famine have already accepted the grain: Malawi, Lesotho and Swaziland.
"The food aid is the same food we eat at home," said Judy Moon, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy to South Africa in Pretoria.
But African leaders say that what may be good for the United States is not necessarily best for Africa. Like Europe, Africa has remained wary of genetically modified crops. Even in the face of a humanitarian crisis some political leaders are reluctant to change their views.
"It is necessary to examine the maize before we can give it to our people, and I'm certain if it is found to be safe then we will give it. But if it is not, then we would rather starve than get something toxic," Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa told Sky News in an interview.
The impasse over the grain comes as southern Africa struggles in the grip of one of its worst humanitarian crises. Flooding, drought and government mismanagement have combined to create a food crisis threatening 13 million people in six nations.
Zambia has about 2.3 million people at risk of starvation. Zimbabwe remains the hardest hit with about 6 million people - half the country's population - in jeopardy because of drought and the turmoil created by the government's land reform policy of seizing white-owned farms for landless black peasants.
The United Nations World Food Program has asked donors for $507 million to buy more than 1 million metric tons of food. The United States is by far the largest donor, pledging $98 million worth of grain for the relief effort.
According to the World Food Program, the corn in question meets its standards for human consumption. But the WFP is letting the United States and the recipients settle the matter themselves, while warning yesterday that delay could prove costly.
"We have to solve this issue," said Judith Lewis, regional director for World Food Program in East and Southern Africa. "There are too many people who are hungry. And there's no other place to go for food. And we need the food. And we need it now."
The primary concern for Zambia and Zimbabwe is that farmers will use the corn kernels not only to eat but also as seed for next year's crop. If planted, the corn - the staple food in southern Africa - may contaminate other corn with its genes, permanently altering the makeup of those nations' corn crops.
Such developments could be devastating for African farmers struggling to increase agricultural trade with Europe, where there are restrictions on the importation of genetically modified products and livestock fed with genetically modified grain.
Zambia accepted U.S. grain, but in recent weeks the government - with no set policy on genetically modified food - has decided to reconsider accepting future shipments.
Zimbabwe rejected its share of the same corn. Instead, it accepted a small donation of U.S. corn meal, which was considered safe because it could not be planted.
Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe has refused to accept any other grain unless it is similarly milled. But no one can agree on who should pay for milling the thousands of tons of grain Zimbabwe needs and how it will be stored.
U.S. officials say that milling corn - at a cost of about $25 per ton - is not part of the food aid package. And aid officials warn that cornmeal has a much shorter shelf life, making it difficult to build up food reserves for the worst months of hunger expected later this year.
None of this would be a problem if the United States delivered only nongenetically modified grain to these countries. But the different types of corn are not separated, U.S. officials say.
"That's simply the way our markets work. There's nothing we can do about it. If you want maize from the United States, that's what you get," Andrew Natsios, an administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said during a recent State Department broadcast.
Critics of the U.S. food shipment insist that it is possible to earmark nongenetically engineered grain for Africa. But they also suspect that the U.S. may have a hidden agenda.
"Is the United States dumping its GE [genetically engineered] maize on Africa that nobody else wants to buy? Are they trying to control our markets?" asked Andrew Taynton, a founding member of the Safe Food Coalition of South Africa, a grassroots group opposed to the use of genetically modified food. "I don't want the Americans to think we are not thankful, but Africans have to look at it differently," he said.