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World Food Body Fails to Take Stand on GM Food Aid

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World Food Body Fails to Take Stand on GM Food Aid

Mon Oct 28, 8:52 AM ET

Dickson Jere,OneWorld Africa

Demands by a biotech food research and campaigns group for a radical rethink of food relief efforts involving the distribution of transgenic crops have been brushed aside by senior officials of the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), at a meeting which ended Friday in Rome.

The five-day meeting of WFP's 36 executive board members resisted pressure from Barcelona-based Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN) to consider adopting a policy against the supply of genetically modified (GM) foods to areas of the world, particularly Southern Africa, suffering from deep levels of hunger.

"The position of WFP on biotech foods remains the same as for other donated foods," WFP senior public affairs officer, Francis Mwanza, told OneWorld on Friday, adding that "the meeting was not meant to take any position on biotech foods."

WFP policy covers the brokerage of food aid shipments but does not extend to decisions on safety standards, which remain subject to international guidelines on the trade in food products and regulations applied by governments sending and receiving food relief.

In a paper entitled "No to GM food aid," published ahead of the WFP meeting, GRAIN urged board members, including representatives from Swaziland and Madagascar, to "ensure that countries do not receive GM food aid and that food aid is sourced locally as much as possible within the region where it is needed."

According to GRAIN, seeds from artificially-produced crops delivered as aid may enter the pool for local varieties and could affect overall yields, destabilizing the basis of food security for the large populations of subsistence farmers in the region.

The issue provoked an international furor earlier this year when the Southern African countries of Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe rejected GM food aid from the United States on the grounds that there was no evidence to show that the supplies were safe either for human consumption or the environment.

The countries are among six in the region suffering from a severe food crisis caused by several years of drought. Some 14 million people are currently affected by the crisis.

After heated discussion around the issue, the governments of Zimbabwe and Malawi decided that they would allow milled GM grain to be delivered because of the reduced chances of cross-pollination.

Although Zambia is now the only country in the region that has completely rejected the aid--pending scientific research on the safety of GM food consumption--opinion on the issue among local farmers remains unclear, according to research conducted by Panos Southern Africa, a Lusaka-based development institute, in conjunction with the Zambia National Farmers' Union.

While most small-scale farmers wanted more information on the subject, commercial farmers were opposed to GM, citing as their main reason the possibility of losing European Union (news - web sites) markets, which account for 53 percent of Zambian exports and operate under strict guidelines on GM food.

GRAIN is asking donor countries to instead consider providing relief in the form of cash funds to allow governments in the region to buy locally-produced food, and thus help boost the livelihoods of farmers and the economies on which they depend.

"The issue is not whether a few sacks of GM maize are going to make people in Southern Africa keel over and die," said GRAIN, "but whether the international community is really bent on helping African farmers support their families, their communities and their integrity."

"The threat and impact of contamination of local maize varieties would be far more serious than the UN recognizes," the group warned. "Food aid to Africa and elsewhere must be GM-free or we run the risk that our generation will ensure that food aid will be needed forever."

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