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[HARARE] A team of African scientists set up by the 14 nations of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to investigate the effects of genetically modified (GM) foods has concluded that they pose no immediate risk to humans and animals.

A group of around 20 scientists, who were sent on a fact-finding mission to the United States and Europe earlier this year, advise that South African nations should embrace the technology because of its potential to increase agricultural yields.

Abisai Mafa, registrar at Zimbabwe's biosafety department - which is currently studying the scientists' report - pointed out that the team also warned that "potential environmental risks remain a challenge, especially in Africa, because of [its] rich plant and animal genetic resources". The scientists have therefore recommended that genetic modification technologies be evaluated in African environments and have called for African nations to develop their capacity to regulate and test GM products.

SADC's Council of Ministers is to review the report's conclusions this weekend, before forwarding their recommendations to the highest policy and decision-making body – the Heads of Government summit – which meets in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 25 and 26 August.

According to the report, scientific evidence suggests that GM crops such as Bt maize, Bt cotton and herbicide-tolerant soybean do not pose any health risks that differ from non-GM crops.

But the report also emphasises the need for caution when approving the release of GM crops into the environment. For example, it points out that GM crops could cross-pollinate with other varieties of the same species, and that herbicide-tolerant and insect-resistant GM crops could lead to the development of resistance in weeds and insects.

The introduction of GM food aid in the region at the height of last year's food shortages caused a furore, with Zambia insisting on non-GM maize - citing its concern that such food could be harmful to human health - while Zimbabwe, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique finally settled for milled GM grain (see Zimbabwe nears deal on transgenic food).

In sharp contrast to the SADC team's findings, Zambia's own team of scientists sent on a fact-finding mission to the United States and Europe last year recommended that the country should maintain its stand against GM food. (see Zambia stands firm against GM) "[Genetically modified organisms] can cause resistance to antibiotics and compromise immunity in people with poor health status," the Zambian report said.