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Academy of Sciences offers to broker biotech debate

11th November 2012
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The Tanzania Academy of Sciences (TAAS) last week resolved to facilitate broader public dialogue on agricultural biotechnology, in particular GM technology, which has engaged scientists and policy-makers in protracted debate over the past five years with precious little movement forward, the Guardian on Sunday can report.

This was one among several recommendations made at a consultative workshop on climate change in Dar es Salaam – convened by TAAS – at which delegates expressed concern over delays in making decisions on how the country could embrace GM technology as a one of the means to address food security against the backdrop of global warming.

At issue is country’s ‘Strict Liability’ clause in the 2009 biosafety regulatory regime that holds everyone down the supply line liable to legal sanctions should anything go wrong in the process of developing GM products – particularly food – which many fear could have adverse effects on human and animal health.

The ‘Strict Liability’ clause provides, among other things, that ‘a person who imports, arranges transit, makes use of, releases or places on the market a GMO or a product of a GMO shall be strictly liable for any harm caused by such a GMO “and that “the harm shall be compensated”

However, much of continental Europe, from whom most of Africa’s regulatory regimes are borrowed, are shedding off such tardy regulatory frameworks holding back full utilization of biotechnology in agriculture, health and industry.

But as organized science in Europe takes root, making use of the latest tools now made available to those who dare to experiment, Tanzania’s science and policy corridors are still talking at cross-purposes -- and have remained divided since a public-private regional project codenamed WEMA (Water efficient Maize for Africa) got underway five years ago.

The scientists and policy-makers are at least agreed on one point – that to go or not GM isn’t at issue; the problem is how “safely thus” as Shakespeare once put it. On that score alone, Tanzania could lose out on the WEMA project – because the other partners are averse to the strict liability clause.

“If we don’t move fast … we are out,” a worried scientist said – six months ago. Now we are counting days – if not weeks.

Dr Hassan Mshinda, director general of the Tanzania Commission for Science and technology COSTECH, concurs.

“We hope that things might change by December … we are assured that the government is prepared to relax its position,” says the COSTECH chief, whose agency is coordinating the project in Tanzania. These sentiments were also expressed six months ago.

In the meantime, maize production at five experimental stations in Arusha, Dodoma, Morogoro and Tanga stand at more than double the national averages, indicating that our scientists have what it takes to manage GM maize fields.

Tanzania faces a bit of the devil’s choice: the people will eat GM maize whether we grow or refuse to grow our own GM maize  because our immediate neighbours Kenya and Uganda are already on the way to producing the first commercial crop by next year.

“In any case, we are already eating GM maize every time we travel to South Africa or the Americas,” says a research officer who has working with the Tanzania component of WEMA.

With the future of Tanzania’s first GM maize still on hold, the cotton industry could provide the best examples of how biotechnology might bring our own version of a green revolution.

Cotton is now billed for a major, fresh comeback to abandoned fields across traditional cotton-growing areas as well as ‘no-go’ regions to the south of Tanzania when current research produces a new seed resilient enough to thrive under harsh drought conditions and insect attacks, The Guardian on Sunday can report.

But there’s also a big “if” into the equation. Field trials on Bt cotton, the new variety which is genetically enhanced to withstand drought and insect pests, are now being carried out in neighbouring Kenya, where biosafety rules are less stringent.

Dr Roshan Abdallah, team leader of plant biosafety centre of excellence in Tanzania, says the trials could not be done at home -- again because of the ‘strict liability’ clause in the 2009 biosafety regulatory regime. Like food security embodied in the maize project, the cotton industry may have to wait a while longer while we make up our minds.

Cotton is Tanzania’s largest export crop after coffee, bringing in a handsome $90 million to export earnings and sustains, directly and indirectly, the lives of some 48 percent of the country’s population currently estimated at 38 million.

Primarily, cotton is produced by about 500,000 smallholders in 42 districts on farms ranging from 0.5 to 10 hectares – national average 1.5ha – in 13 of the regions in mainland Tanzania. Most farmers do not use fertilizer or other chemicals, mechanized (or even animal) power, or irrigation.

More than 90 percent of the cotton is produced to the south of Lake Victoria in Mwanza, Shinyanga, Mara, Tabora, Kigoma, and Singida region, with just three of them – Singida, Mwanza and Shinyanga – accounting for over 80 percent of the crop; the rest comes from the Eastern parts of the country.

About 410,000 ha were sown to cotton during the 2006/07 farming season, but slightly less than half (200,000) tons of seeds was harvested due to heavy rains. Tanzania also exported 17,982 tons of lint worth $20 million compared to 98,528 tons valued at $101 million the previous year (2005/06).

Against such odds, there are now concerted efforts to facilitate a shift from subsistence to commercial farming aimed at enhancing smallholder productivity so that families can improve incomes. However, there are limitations to productivity which include unfavorable weather – mainly drought in some regions – insect pests such as cotton bollworms, jassids, lygus and aphids; diseases like fusarium wilt, bacterial blight and verticillium wilt; weeds, competition with food crops, declining soil fertility and unsatisfactory marketing and seed distribution systems.

Among the most damaging insect pests are the bollworm species, which may cause up to 40 percent losses of crop, or even wipe out an entire crop during pest “surges.”

Adoption of Bt cotton is key to these efforts.

Elsewhere across the world, biotechnology is proving to be the best way to providing food for a hungry tomorrow, according to the latest figures released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agro-biotech Applications (ISAA) based in Brazil.

The most compelling testimony to biotech crops is that, in the period 1996 to 2011, millions of farmers in 29 countries worldwide, made more than 100 million independent decisions to plant and replant an accumulated 1.25 billion hectares. One principal reason underpins the trust and confidence of risk-averse farmers in the technology -- biotech crops deliver sustainable and substantial, socioeconomic and environmental benefits.

Of the 29 countries planting biotech crops in 2011, 19 were developing and 10 were industrial countries. The top ten countries each grew more than one million hectares and they provide a broad based, worldwide foundation for diversified growth in the future.

In 2011, a record 16.7 million farmers, up 1.3 million or 8 percent from 2010, grew biotech crop notably over 90 percent or 15 million were small resource poor farmers in developing countries, farmers are the masters of risk aversion and in 2011, a record 7 million small farmers in China and another 7 million in India, elected to plant 14.5 million hectares of Bt cotton.

Developing countries grew 50 percent of global biotech crops in 2011 and are expected to increase industrial country hectarage in 2012. In 2011, growth rate for biotech crops was twice as fast, and twice as large, in developing countries, at 11 percent or 8.2 million hectares, versus 5 percent or 8.2 million hectares, versus 5 percent or 3.8 million hectares in industrial countries.

Stacked traits are an important feasture-12 countries planted biotech crops with two or more traits in 2011, and encouragingly 9 of the 12 were developing countries, 42.2 million hectares, or more than quarter of the 160 million hectares were stacked in 2011 up from 32.3 million hectares or 22 percent of the 148 million hectares in 2010.

The five lead developing countries in biotech crops are India and China in Asia, Brazil and Argentina in Latin America, and South Africa on the continent of Africa which together represent 40 percent of the global population which could reach 10.1 billion by 2100.

Brazil for the third consecutive year was the engine of growth globally, increasing its land sown to biotech crops more than any other country, a record 4.9 million hectares, up 20 percent from 2010. A fast-track system approved 6 new products in 2011, including home grown biotech virus resistant bean, developed in the public sector by EMBRAPA (Brazilian Agricultural Research Cooperation).

The US continued to be the leading producer of biotech crops globally with 69.0 million hectares, with an average adoption rate of 90 percent across all biotech crops.

Planting of RR alfalfa resumed with up to 200,000 hectares, plus 475,000 hectares of RR sugar beet. Virus resistant papaya from the US was approved for consumption as a fresh fruit/food in Japan effective December 2011.

India celebrated the 10th anniversary of Bt cotton with planting exceeding 10 million hectares for the first time, reaching 110.6 million hectares, and occupying 88 percent of the record 12.1 million hectare cotton crop. The principal beneficiaries were 7 million small farmers growing on average, 1.5 hectares of cotton, India enhanced farm income from Bt cotton by US$ 9.4 billion in the period 2002 to 2010 and US$ 2.5 billion in 2010 alone.

In China, 7 million small farmers (average of 0.5 hectares) grew a record 3.9 million hectares of Bt cotton at record adoption rate of 71.5 percent. The expected commercial approval of Golden Rice in the Philippines in 2013/14 will be of the significance to China.

SOURCE: GUARDIAN ON SUNDAY
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