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UN agency sees no ill effects of genetically modified crops

ROME -- Genetically modified crops are helping poor farmers and have posed no adverse health or environmental effects so far, the UN food agency said yesterday in a report on how biotechnology can help feed the world's hungry.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization called for greater government regulation and monitoring of genetically modified, or transgenic, products to ensure they are safely used. The agency said more research is needed on the products' long-term health and environmental impacts.

In a positive report likely to fuel the biotech debate, the agency said the biggest problem with the genetic technology is that it has not spread fast enough to small farmers and has focused on crops mostly of use to big commercial interests.

UN officials stressed that genetically modified products were only one tool to help poor farmers, who still need access to fair markets, credit, and decent land. But they said transgenic technology has great potential for increasing crop yields, reducing costs to customers, and improving the nutritional value of foods.

The agency ''believes that biotechnology, including genetic engineering, can benefit the poor, but that the gains are not guaranteed," said Hartwig de Haen, assistant director-general of its economic and social department.

''The international community must act decisively if it wants to ensure that this technology can also be accessible and useful to the poor."

Transgenic crops have spread widely in recent years, accounting for 5 percent of the world's crop area and increasing by about 15 percent a year, the agency said. The use of genetically modified crops is widespread in the United States, but such foods face public opposition in parts of Europe and Africa. The report comes the same week the European Union is to approve imports of genetically modified corn for human consumption, ending a six-year moratorium.

Last month, European countries started enforcing the world's strictest rules on labeling genetically modified foods.

De Haen said one reason the UN compiled the report was to give the public and governments sound science about biotech, particularly after Zambia refused UN food aid in 2002 because the food was genetically modified.

Proponents of genetically modified foods say plants that can resist insects and be fortified with extra vitamins are a boon to farmers and consumers.

Opponents say the crops pose unknown health and environmental risks, and the ones who benefit most are the multinational corporations that develop and sell genetically modified seeds.

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