SPENCER MICHELS: This is an increasingly rare sight: Singing and dancing in Zambia. This fall, the rural town of Choma celebrated the first arrival of emergency food aid, aid that's desperately needed throughout southern Africa. Hundreds of people have died so far, but casualties could skyrocket in the next three months. For that reason, the World Food Programme calls the hunger problem "the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world." James Morris is executive director.
JAMES MORRIS: Africa is in a series of serious crises. In southern Africa, the six countries of Malawi, and Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, there are 14.5 million people at risk of starvation here.
SPENCER MICHELS: At risk because of a severe, two-year drought, the world's worst HIV epidemic, and in some cases, rejections of U.S.-made, genetically altered food, particularly on the part of Zambia. The country of ten million became independent from Britain in 1964. It's one of the world's poorest countries, and today, much of its land is bone dry. Its food reserves sit empty. One in four Zambians is at risk of starving between now and March.
STEPHEN MARTIN: There's been nothing here for two years. So in the village that we looked at today, there's no chickens, there's no goats. Everything that could possibly have been eaten has been eaten.
SPENCER MICHELS: To get by, some chew on roots from marshes. They even pick poisonous roots and then boil them to try to detoxify them. Others sell off everything from livestock to charcoal to buy food.
WOMAN (Translated): It is quite difficult for us to survive on the land, so the only the way to survive is to cut down the trees and burn charcoal. In this area, everybody is in charcoal. If they don't burn charcoal, they die of hunger.
SPENCER MICHELS: Overseas donors have sent large amounts of corn, the main staple. More than half has come from the U.S. But Zambia recently said it doesn't want American corn, touching off a controversy that many fear will worsen the food crisis. Zambia's problem is that American corn contains portions that are genetically modified, in other words bio-engineered to resist damage from insects and pesticides. Americans have eaten genetically modified corn and other foods for years, often without knowing it. There have been no documented cases of health effects. Biotech corn is also deemed safe in the European Union. But the E.U. requires genetically modified foods to be labeled, and the public there is suspicious of what some call "Frankenfood." European-based environmental groups like Greenpeace blast the biotech food as "genetic pollution." And they accuse U.S. farmers of dumping on Africa something the rest of the world doesn't want. In September, Zambia's president, Levy Mwanawasa, took a similar tone, calling the U.S. corn "poison."
PRESIDENT LEVY MWANAWASA: We may be poor and experiencing severe food shortages, but we aren't ready to expose our people to ill- defined risks through the consumption of non-certified foods.
SPENCER MICHELS: U.S. corn sent overseas can be in two forms: As whole kernels or as milled cornmeal. Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi, all facing hunger crises, have rejected the kernels. Their fear, says Robert Paarlberg of Wellesley College, is the kernels could be planted as seeds and produce a whole crop of genetically engineered corn.
ROBERT PAARLBERG: And if that genetically modified corn then enters the Zambian food system, and if exports of meat, poultry, for example, fed with that corn are then turned away from Europe, they feel that they might lose some commercial sales abroad.
SPENCER MICHELS: To get around that, agencies now provide Zimbabwe and Malawi with milled corn meal, which can be eaten but not planted. But Zambia has rejected both the U.S. cornmeal and the corn kernels. And that means all 12,000 tons of American grain is off limits. The government says it can do without U.S. grain, grain that's now locked up, though many have broken into warehouses to steal the genetically modified corn.
PRESIDENT LEVY MWANAWASA: We are certain that...
SPENCER MICHELS: President Mwanawasa says he's confident the donor community can find enough non- genetically modified corn to feed Zambia. That will be a tall order, given the time constraints, says Paarlberg. He says it will soon be too late.
ROBERT PAARLBERG: Some Zambian political leaders have warned that a serious food crisis is already underway, and the government of Zambia has threatened those people with arrest and has tried through the state-controlled media to dampen down anxieties about the severity of the crisis.
SPENCER MICHELS: For the Zambian people, some wish they could choose for themselves whether to eat American corn.
MAN: It's like this... smoking or drinking. They allow smoking and drinking. It's up to someone to make a choice either to smoke or to drink. It's like this... some maize, if they are saying it is poisonous, those who are hungry, they have to make a choice either to take it or not.
SPENCER MICHELS: Others aren't even aware of the controversy. They just know they're hungry. In southern Zambia, some eat just once a week. Ken Hackett is executive director of Catholic Relief Services, which just sent a team to Zambia.
KEN HACKETT: The people that our delegation talked to at the community level are saying, we need food to eat. "We don't understand the whole debate. We need food to eat."
SPENCER MICHELS: Hackett's group and others are feeding just a fraction of the Zambians at risk, because of the government's rejection of U.S. corn.
KEN HACKETT: I can't make an assumption about the government of Zambia's policy and what the motivation behind it is, and I don't want to make a judgment about that, but they are putting their country in a very difficult position. Nonetheless, what we are trying to do is work with the government and work with those people to find options for them, and we have purchased non- genetically modified foods and brought them into the country for distribution.
SPENCER MICHELS: Aid groups say the food crisis is also compounding the HIV-AIDS emergency: 20 percent of Zambians have the virus. They're dying more quickly than expected because of malnourishment.
SPOKESPERSON: I'll give you a big hug. Thank you for coming.
SPENCER MICHELS: HIV also depletes the workforce. Princess Casune Zulu of Zambia, who's not linked to the government, lost both parents to aids.
WOMAN: ( Singing )
SPENCER MICHELS: HIV-positive herself, Zulu works for the charity World Vision. She spoke recently in Chicago.
PRINCESS CASUNE ZULU: In Zambia, where I come from, women are actually the ones who do the farming, and in Africa in general. And now because HIV and AIDS ask women to be more caregivers than men, that has taken away a lot of labor for people to farm. And sometimes the women themselves are actually HIV positive, so they don't have so much strength to do the farming. We as Africans, we have big families. We are talking about mothers having five children, and now, if they die, they leave five children.
SPENCER MICHELS: Because of the HIV crisis, Catholic Relief Services says the southern Africa food shortage could repeat the casualties of the 1984 Ethiopia famine, which took a million lives. For now, relief groups are appealing for additional cash and food from government donors. So far, the U.N.'s World Food Programme has raised $250 million to help southern Africa between now and the March harvest, but it says it needs to double that amount, in order to prevent large-scale starvation between now and then.