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[BOGOTÁ] Colombia has allowed genetically modified (GM) corn to enter its borders for the first time, and will authorise plantations of other GM products later in the year.

The Colombian Institute of Agriculture (ICA) approved one hundred kilograms of GM corn for import last month, half of which is resistant to a herbicide and the other half to insects.

Andrés F. Arias, from the Ministry of Agriculture, says growers from four regions of Colombia — Córdoba, Huila, Sucre and Tolima — will be allowed to buy the seeds.

Ana Luisa Diaz, of ICA, told SciDev.Net that authorisation has been given only to regions where the Institute has done controlled biosafety assessments.

The ICA will conduct follow-up biosafety studies of the seed from planting until harvest.

The ICA later approved the import of two other varieties of GM corn, both resistant to insects, for use in the Caribbean region of the country. The quantity imported will based on the interest expressed by farmers in the region.

At a meeting this week (3 March) Arias also announced approval of semi-commercial plantations of GM cassava, rice, roses, sugarcane and coffee later this year, with commercial approval to be granted in 2008.

But some are concerned about the developments. German Velez, from the non-governmental organisation Grupo Semillas says, "The biosafety policies and rules in this country are nonsense."

Velez is concerned that the GM products will cross-pollinate and therefore alter the natural species of these plants. He pointed to a case in México, where he says natural corn has been contaminated by GM corn.

"These technologies have been designed for big agricultural companies and won’t benefit the poor," he said. However, he acknowledged that studies have not yet determined GM products' effect on human health.

Arias defended GM products, saying they increase crop production per hectare and therefore boost farmers' incomes while reducing pressure on natural ecosystems.

Osiris Ocando, from Agro-Bio, a non-profit organisation, applauded the government's decision. She hoped Colombian farmers could make use of a wide variety of GM corn seeds, as it is "essential that the Colombian agricultural sector is able to use modern technology to enhance its competitiveness".

Colombia is one of the 22 countries to have planted GM seeds. Of its cotton plantations, 41 per cent (22.7 hectares) are the GM variety Bt.