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  • Southern African nations to probe GM safety

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is to set up an advisory committee to investigate the potential dangers of genetically modified (GM) crops.

The announcement was made at the annual SADC summit in Luanda, Angola, and follows the refusal of some famine-stricken southern African countries to accept donations of GM maize on the grounds that such food could be harmful to human health.

The committee — which will draw up guidelines on food safety, contamination of genetic resources, ethical and trade-related issues, and consumer concerns — held its first meeting last week to discuss recent delays in shipments of food aid to the region.

Leaders at the summit also agreed to send 20 biotechnologists and other researchers from SADC nations to the United States to review the latest biotechnology research and evaluate results from health and safety tests on GM foods. But they emphasised that individual countries should be "at liberty to take a position to accept or reject [GM grain] coming as food aid". They also said that if a member state accepts GM grain, it should undertake public awareness campaigns to ensure that such maize is not planted.

The ministerial council of SADC, which comprises 14 southern African nations, has requested further clarification from the World Health Organisation on the safety of GM foods. "Persistent concerns have been raised over the safety of GM maize, and this has seriously jeopardised the delivery of food aid to vulnerable people that require it urgently across Southern Africa," said Angola's planning minister, Ana Dias Lourenco.

The South Africa President Thabo Mbeki, meanwhile, last week offered to mill 600,000 tons of GM grain currently stored at the port of Durban, before it is distributed to hunger stricken Southern African countries. "We decided that we shall carry the cost of milling as part of Africa's contribution to solving the [food crisis]," he said in an interview with Reuters news agency.

Making milled grain available would allay the fears of some Southern African nations that GM strains could be planted, with the possibility of genetic material from such strains being transferred to their indigenous varieties.

But Zambia's president, Levy Mwanawasa, turned down South Africa's offer of milled GM maize, citing an "absence of conclusive scientific evidence about its safety". He said that his country had taken a stance against GM food and that, although there were many hungry people in Zambia, they were "not starving". The World Food Programme, however, estimates that about 2.3 million people in Zambia are facing severe food shortages as the result of drought.

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Southern African Development Community

Photo credit: 2002 - © WFP/Richard Lee
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