JOHANNESBURG, 30 August 2002 - Countries in Southern Africa whose populations are facing a devastating drought should carefully consider current scientific knowledge before rejecting food aid containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Dr. Jacques Diouf, Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said.

Addressing a press conference at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Dr. Diouf said that 13 million people were estimated to be in need of food assistance in coming months to avoid widespread starvation in the region.

He noted that there were currently no international agreements in force covering trade and aid involving food containing GMOs. An ad hoc committee of Codex Alimentarius, the joint FAO-WHO Food Safety body, was working to develop appropriate standards.

"In the meantime, the important thing is that all donated food meets the food safety standards of both the donor and recipient countries.

"FAO, together with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), takes the view, based on information from a variety of sources and current scientific knowledge, that the food being offered to Southern African countries is not likely to present a human health risk and may be eaten," Dr. Diouf said.

"The United Nations therefore believes that in the current crisis, governments in Southern Africa must consider carefully the severe and immediate consequences of limiting food aid available for millions of people so desperately in need," Dr. Diouf said. "Their plight must weigh heavily in government decision-making," he added.

Referring to concerns about the unintentional introduction of GM maize varieties into the region as a result of planting or spillage, Dr. Diouf said he recognised that there were concerns about potential risks to biological diversity and sustainable agriculture.

However these potential risks should be judged and managed by individual countries on a case by case basis. In the specific case of maize, which was known for its propensity to outcross, governments could consider using techniques such as milling or heat treatment to avoid inadvertent introduction of genetically modified seed. However, it was not UN policy that GM grain used for food, feed or processing should necessarily require such treatments.

Dr. Diouf said that he would be taking advantage of his attendance at the Summit to hold bilateral meetings with governments from the region to discuss their food security situation, and also the outbreak of foot and mouth disease.