The debate over genetically modified foods has taken on new urgency. As millions of people in southern Africa face the prospect of famine, their governments are unwilling to accept food aid that includes genetically modified corn. Worries about the environmental impact of such foods are genuine, but the long-term risk must be weighed against the more immediate threat of mass starvation. This stark choice can be avoided — and it must be. This is no time to try to score political points at the expense of millions of innocent lives.

The United Nations estimates that some 13 million people face starvation in six countries in southern Africa. The World Health Organization has warned that 300,000 people could die in the next few months if they do not get assistance. The United States provides 500,000 tons of food, about half of the region’s humanitarian aid. Unfortunately, the U.S. aid contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs) — corn — and African governments are unwilling to accept the foods.

Those governments share the fears of many consumers around the world who wonder about the as-yet unknown health effects of eating such foods. In addition, they fear that the genetically modified foods will be planted rather than eaten, which could wreak havoc on local food production. They worry that GMOs will alter domestic strains, reduce biodiversity and ruin the export prospects of local agricultural producers.

Those fears are real. Shaken by food scares such as mad cow disease, the European Union has banned new biotech crops from other parts of the world for the past three years. The governments are joined by anti-GMO groups, who argue that the U.S. is exploiting the famine to short-circuit debate on such foods and aid their international acceptability. The U.S. government counters that the risks of GMOs are exaggerated. It has pressed the EU to echo its assurances that the food is safe; Brussels has demurred, but its position might yet change.

Compromise solutions are possible. For example, genetically modified corn could be milled to prevent it from being used as seed, which would eliminate concern about its affecting the agricultural gene pool or “contaminating” future exports. Funds could be used to buy local corn or nongenetically modified food. Still, it is likely that some GMO products will eventually be included; the health questions will persist. Ultimately, the solution is more fundamental and requires changes in agricultural policies.

There are two components to southern Africa’s famine problem. The first is the capriciousness of nature. Bad weather exacts a regular toll on African agriculture. Climatic change triggered by global warming is expected to continue to alter weather patterns and exacerbate Africa’s difficulties.

The real problem, though, is mistaken government policies. Corn production is down 77 percent in Zimbabwe, putting some 6 million lives at risk. That shortfall is the result of the Harare government’s policy of taking over white-owned farms. President Robert Mugabe has played the race card to shore up his government, and the result has brought havoc to agricultural production.

Mr. Mugabe’s policies are the most egregious mistakes. Long-term trends all converge toward the same ugly outcome: increasing shortages of food. Population growth continues — the number of people on the planet is expected to increase from 6 billion to 9 billion by 2050 — while the amount of arable land decreases. About 11 percent of the world’s land is used for agriculture, and although some areas can increase the amount of land under cultivation, many of the most crowded regions, such as South Asia and North Africa, cannot.

Desertification already affects 250 million people and another billion are at risk. Some 20 to 30 percent of irrigated land in the developing world has already been damaged by salinity; 12 million hectares have been removed from production.

These trends can be changed. Developing world governments need to encourage farmers to use more environmentally friendly crops, teach them to use less water-intensive techniques and be more responsible stewards of the soil. Population policies would also help diminish pressures on the land.

Developed countries have their own role to play. They should help developing world farmers adopt techniques and provide biotechnologies that will increase yields and grow more nourishing crops while reducing the impact on the fertility of the land. Just as critical is eliminating trade barriers that keep developing world products from penetrating the markets of advanced nations. Assuring those farmers of more money is the best way of spurring production and averting famine, which grows more threatening each day.

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