WHO sees risk unlikely from gene-altered foods
The Financial Times reported that the U.N. health agency had set up talks in Harare, Zimbabwe on Monday to overcome the refusal of several famine-hit countries to accept GM food. It said that WHO was "stockpiling rejected grain" for distribution.
Dr. Andrew Cassels, a senior adviser to WHO director-general Gro Harlem Brundtland, denied the FT story at a news briefing called to launch a report "WTO Agreements and Public Health", the first joint study by WHO and World Trade Organisation (WTO).
"The summit referred to is not about GMO. The summit is a meeting of southern African health ministers and senior officials of the WHO. It is to discuss the health sector response to the famine - that is the purpose of the summit."
Regarding the stockpiling reference, Cassels said: "We have absolutely no idea where this has come from."
Some 12 million people in six countries (Lesotho, Malawi, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique) face starvation due to drought and disease, according to U.N. relief agencies.
Dr. Wim Van Eck, of WHO's food safety and nutrition division, said that a series of consultations with the Food and Agriculture Organisation and World Food Programme as well as national risk assessments had not revealed GM risks to humans.
"WHO is of the opinion that it is very unlikely that there is a risk for consumers when they consume GM food currently approved and currently available on the market," Van Eck said.
On the threat to biodiversity and countries' GM-free status from GM seeds, rather than GM crops, Van Eck said it was up to individual governments to decide if they wanted to use milling or other processes to mitigate the risk of "cross-pollination".
"At the end of the day, it is of course a decision of the recipient governments in the area, but we think that it is unlikely genetically-modified foods pose a risk to human health. We think that the environmental risks are manageable," he added.
The European Union yesterday rejected calls from Washington for it to reassure African countries that GM food aid from the United States is safe. The EU declined to intervene.
In June, the government of Zimbabwe rejected a U.S. maize consignment of 17,500 tonnes because it was not certified free of genetically-modified material.
The EU is finalising rules which would require U.S. farmers to segregate GM crops from non-GM before exporting them to the 15-country European bloc.
The United States is lobbying against the move, which would prove costly for a farm sector where GM and non-GM are routinely mixed. Washington argues its safety tests prove the GM crops are safe and that populations on the verge of starvation should not be denied food deemed acceptable for U.S. consumers.
Formally, no country has brought a GM-related dispute for resolution to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), according to Erik Wijkstrom, of WTO's trade and environment division.