America finds ready market for GM food - the hungry

Embattled American farmers facing rejection of their genetically modified crops still have one unquestioning market - emergency aid for the world's starving and displaced.

The US Department of Agriculture is exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of GM maize to the Third World through the United Nations and American aid agencies. Aid is the last unregulated export market open to US farmers as worried European and Asian consumers shun GM grain and introduce strict import and labelling rules.

Last year the US donated 500,000 tons of maize and maize products worth $111m (£70m) to international relief programmes. It is "safe to assume" that 30 per cent of this aid was genetically modified, according to Usaid, the US government's aid wing.

Lucrative maize contracts were awarded to giant GM grain merchants such as Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Cargill, which won one-third of all contracts by volume last year. When other sales are included, Cargill and ADM won aid contracts worth at least $140m last year.

The UN's World Food Programmes (WFP) received just under half of the US maize donations. But the UN does not know how much of the aid it receives is genetically modified; nor does it have a policy on the issue.

"We have many issues to face and GM is way down the list," said a WFP spokeswoman in Nairobi. WFP accepted only those food donations that fully met the safety standards in the donor countries, she added.

The safety standards are hotly contested by others, such as Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss of the South African organisation Biowatch. "Africa is treated as the dustbin of the world. The US does not need to grow nor donate GM crops. To donate untested food and seed to Africa is not an act of kindness but an attempt to lure Africa into further dependence on foreign aid," she said.

The export of GM crops as food is something WFP should be "very concerned with", according to Li Lin Lim of the Malaysia-based Third World Network. She said it was "very likely" that UN policy was influenced by its dependence on the US.

Last year the US contributed $711m to WFP, almost half its global budget. WFP's executive director is Catherine Bertini, a former Department of Agriculture official who hails from the Illinois cornbelt region.

The massive backlash against the use of GM crops in Western food products started last year in Europe and spread to Japan and the US. Multinationals as diverse as McDonald's and Heinz banned GM ingredients from their products and the EU introduced a two-year moratorium on GM imports.

Strict restrictions on the labelling and export of GM crops were agreed in Canada earlier this year. Dr Tewolde Gebre Egziabher of Ethiopia led the group of Third World countries fighting for stricter regulation. "Countries in the grip of a crisis are unlikely to have the leverage to say, 'This crop is contaminated, we're not taking it'," he said. "They should not be faced with a dilemma between allowing a million people to starve to death and allowing their genetic pool to be polluted."

But esoteric arguments about the genetic make-up of a bag of grain mean little to those for whom food aid is a matter of life and death.

Some 4,000 people have arrived in Kafurumaye, a village on the edge of the vast forests of eastern Congo. They are part of an estimated 130,000 people that have fled the militia attacks that fuel the Congo war.

No aid agency has yet visited. The GM debate doesn't feature as even a blip on their consciousness. "We haven't enough food or even pots too cook with," said the village chief.

Congo is just one of many famine hot spots competing for the attention of Western aid agencies: there are crises in such places as Burundi, Angola, Mozambique and Sudan.

A WFP information officer, Brenda Barton, was so moved by the 1998 famine in southern Sudan she fed starving twins with her breast milk. "It would be pretentious to say that GM foods matters to these people," she said. "When people are dying they don't question where the food is coming from."

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