By Sharon Schmickle
The Washington Post
ENGARUKA, Tanzania — When the bell rang at midday, students fetched tin bowls and lined up under trees in the schoolyard for scoops of corn and bean porridge.
Not one of them displayed the food fussiness often seen in American school lunch lines.
After the rainy seasons shortchanged this Maasai village in northern Tanzania, children here suffered too many days when there was no porridge — no food at all to eat in their mud and stick huts. Drought is to blame for a good share of their suffering.
Scientists are developing drought-tolerant corn, something that could ease hunger across Tanzania and sub-Saharan Africa. But the corn can't be planted here because it was genetically modified. Opponents of genetically modified crops have made a stand in Africa — and now villages like Engaruka are squarely in the middle of a global ideological war over agricultural technology.
Since U.S. farmers first adopted genetically modified organism (GMO) crops in 1996, 17 million farmers in 29 countries have followed suit. Europe rejected the crops, though, arguing that farmers would be exploited by large seed companies and that more research is needed into possible risks to the environment and food safety. And European activists have pressured Africa to do the same. Just four African countries — Sudan, Egypt, Burkina Faso and South Africa — have allowed them.
No one denies Africa's hunger. World crop production has more than doubled in 50 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. But Africa lagged behind, achieving some gains while losing ground in places like Engaruka where drought, plant diseases and other problems have knocked down yields and depleted the available food. Now that problem takes on new urgency with U.N. projections that Africa's population will quadruple by the end of this century.
Still, the question of which approach is best for Africa remains hotly disputed. It tears at Tanzania, where 80 percent of the people live by subsistence agriculture.
African countries and research organizations, working together in the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project, have incorporated a gene from a common soil bacterium into corn, enabling plants to produce kernels even while short of water. The modified corn is expected to increase yields by 25 percent during moderate drought.