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May 17, 2008

US accused of applying pressure for acceptance of GM food aid

The US was accused yesterday of putting intense pressure on United Nations organizations, the European Union and individual countries to support the export of GM food aid to six African countries facing severe hunger in the coming months.

Three countries were insisting that the food be milled to prevent the seeds being planted by farmers who may unwittingly pre-empt national legislation.

Zambia's chief scientific adviser said that if his country accepted unprocessed food aid a precedent would be set undermining its legal and democratic systems.

Together with Mozambique and Zimbabwe, which also initially refused to accept GM food aid, Zambia insists that the food must be milled before being handed out, because environmental risk assessments are impossible with its lilted resources.

At least a million tonnes of food are expected to be needed in the next six months to feed up to 12 million people in the six stricken countries. The US has offered more than 200,000 tonnes. The EU, the US Agency for International Development (USAid), the World Food Program, the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization have all been urged by the US government to publicly endorse the safety of the food, which is eaten in more than 35 countries. The EU has refused.

"We have been pushed around by the way the Americans have put pressure on this issue," said the EU development commissioner, Poul Nielson.

But the three countries who have put conditions on the food - and are preparing to mill it themselves - are angry at the pressure tactics used by the US, which has refused to offer conventional food or to mill the seeds.

"We cannot be so irresponsible so as to risk the lives of innocent people," Mundia Sikatana, Zambia's agriculture minister, said. "We don't need to engage in biotechnology at this stage. If we engage in GM our exports will be thrown overboard and that will cost thousands of jobs"

Non-government groups at the Johannesburg conference joined the row.

Robert Vint, of Genetic Food Alert, said: "It is only because the US can prevent the World Food Program from purchasing available non-GM food from southern nations that it is able to tell countries that they must buy GM maize, that they must buy it from the US and that it must be unmilled."

Friends of the Earth said the jury was still out on GM foods and African countries should not be forced to accept the supplies. "Africans should choose what they eat, not have someone else decide for them," its spokesman, Nnimo Bassey, said.

But Andrew Natsios, the administrator of US Aid, told reporters: "It's frightening people into thinking there is something wrong with the food ... and the consequence of it is that the relief effort is slowing down. It is very disturbing to me that some of the groups that are opposed to [genetically modified food] have chosen a famine to make their political points."

The World Bank has just announced that it is to set up a comprehensive study yet of the risks and opportunities of using GM and other farming systems in poor countries. It is expected to last three years. It is to be co-chaired by Dr Robert Watson, the bank's chief scientist, who was ousted as chairman of the UN's inter-governmental panel on climate change in May by the US government and the Exxon oil company, because of his remarks about the potential severity of global warming.

The study was broadly welcomed by environmental groups, who urged the bank to take into account social factors and called on governments to put a moratorium on commercializing GM crops until the bank had reported back.

Meanwhile, small-scale farmers were pushed into the forefront of the debate about the future of GM crops in Africa by the companies and non-governmental groups which are lobbying in force.

"I was given some GM maize seeds by Monsanto and they have done very well. I am very pleased. They save time and money," said George Phanto, a farm leader from KwaZulu Natal province.

But Samuel Togo, a Tanzanian farmer who came to Johannesburg with an African grassroots organization, was more cautious. "I have heard of GM seeds. I do not understand them, but I do not think they are good. I want to farm organically because it is better for the soil."

More than 150 people from the biotech industry were in Johannesburg. Monsanto said it had been lobbying ministers, African MPs and and government delegations. NGOs, with little access to the ministers and delegations, are trying to build alliances to oppose the planting of GM crops.

GM food in Africa has been slow to take off, but hi-tech maize and cotton is now grown commercially in South Africa, with GM soya likely to be approved next week. GM cotton should be approved in Kenya and Uganda by the next growing season and Zimbabwe has conducted trials, according to Monsanto, which has been buying up large seed companies in Africa as a way to promote its GM seeds.

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