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Environmental groups have clashed again with the World Food Programme (WFP) over the extent to which the programme is able to meet the food needs of African countries that doubt the safety of genetically modified (GM) crops.

Earlier this week, a coalition of more than 60 African groups signed a letter of protest about what they claim to have been pressure by both the WFP and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on Sudan and Angola, both of which have decided to impose restrictions on GM food aid.

The African groups, which included a wide range of farmer, consumer, environmental and development groups, accused the two organisations of effectively forcing the countries to accept GM food aid by suggesting that the alternative was to receive less food.

In response, WFP says that it is keen to respect the views of countries that have decided not to accept GM food aid, and that any subsequent difficulties in supplying food have been a direct result of this position, for which the programme should not be blamed.

For example, the WFP argues that delays in shipping food aid to Angola were the direct result of the country only agreeing to accept GM food if it had been milled prior to entering the country, as this had taken some time to arrange (see Angola Rejects GM food aid).

In the case of Sudan, which has passed legislation restricting the cultivation or import of GM food, the protestors claim that USAID had put "enormous pressure" on the country to delay implementation of this law and allow the distribution of GM food up to January 2005.

They also claim that the US agency has cut off food aid to the country as a result of the government's policy, citing a speech in which a USAID official appeared to make such an assertion to a committee of the US House of Representatives.

However, WFP officials strongly deny that the United States — which is the major donor to the food programme — has made any such policy decision. A spokesman points out, for example, that the US government has just donated 33,000 metric tonnes of food to the country.

The protestors have rejected claims by WFP officials that they are doing all they can to respect the wishes of African countries that have concerns about GM foods.

Bryan Ashe of Earthlife Africa, for example, told the South African newspaper Mail and Guardian that "the scenario presented by the WFP and USAID to these countries is that they either accept GM food or face dire consequences".

In response, Mike Huggins of the WFP told the same newspaper that "groups wishing to take part in the discussion should first check their facts before trying to enter into a dialogue".

The protestors claim that the WFP should in principle be able to meet the needs of Africa countries that are rejecting GM food by turning to many sources of non-GM food that currently exist.