A United Nations human rights envoy has been accused of endangering efforts to save 14 million people from starvation after he questioned the safety of genetically modified food destined for southern Africa.
Jean Ziegler, a UN special investigator for food, claimed that big corporations had more to gain from the use of GM food in the developing world than the poor countries that were trying to fight starvation.
"I'm against the theory of the multinational corporations who say if you are against hunger you must be for genetically modified organisms. That's wrong," Mr Ziegler said this week. "There is plenty of natural, normal, good food in the world to nourish the double of humanity."
Mr Ziegler's role is to report on the world food situation to the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva and the UN General Assembly in New York. But his remarks have caused outrage in the international aid community, which is struggling to feed millions of hungry people in six southern African countries.
Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique are all affected by spreading famine. Several countries, including Zimbabwe, initially rejected GM food aid but in the face of a pending calamity have reluctantly begun to distribute it. However, in Zambia, where people are now dying of hunger and from eating poisonous wild roots, the government has refused to allow GM food aid from Canada and the United States to be distributed.
The countries fear that seeds from GM crops will contaminate their own crops and harm their export potential.
A senior international humanitarian aid official described Mr Ziegler's position as "morally bankrupt" yesterday.
"It is outrageous that someone who claims to be working for human rights should be campaigning against the most basic human right the right to food," the official said.
A spokeswoman for Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, said she had no comment on Mr Ziegler's remarks, but that it was up to the individual countries to decide whether they should accept food aid containing GM produce.
Mr Ziegler maintains that the advice of the World Health Organisation, which says GM food is safe to eat, is flawed. The position non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which warn that people are at risk if they consume GM food over a period of time, should be accepted instead. "All the nutritionists, the highly qualified biologists at these NGOs say there is a risk for the human body over the long term," he told journalists. "They say we have not reached a security level and I believe them."
Health questions aside, Mr Ziegler said farmers accepting GM seeds would be forced to continue buying them "for ever" from big biotechnology corporations.
"There is absolutely no justification to produce genetically modified food except the profit motive and the domination of the multinational corporations," said Mr Ziegler, a Swiss former socialist MP.
Emergency aid officials say that the UN provides food aid to the hungry, some of which might contain some GMOs and some of which doesn't. The policy is that the food will be distributed as long as it meets the health standards of the donor country, Canada and the US for the most part, and is acceptable to the recipient country.
They maintain that there is no scientific evidence that the GM food is harmful. Such food is already consumed by hundreds of millions of people across Western Europe and North America.
In southern Africa, Zambia is most at risk of famine, but the government of President Levy Mwanawasa also denies that people are dying of hunger. The President has instead ordered police to arrest MPs from Southern Province who claim that people there are dying of hunger.
Two weeks ago, hungry villagers in south-eastern Zambia raided their local chief's storehouse and took away maize supplies which the government said could not be distributed. The villagers, including women and children, said they were dying of starvation and took 2,000 bags of the banned maize for their families. The maize came from GM seeds.
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