Tanzania has joined neighbours Kenya and Uganda in a novel project to farm drought resilient maize called WEMA, which is code for Water Efficient Maize for Africa. The preparatory stages, scientifically known as confined field trials (CFTs) are done and our scientists are confident that we have what it takes to move on to the next stage – of doing actual research with transgenes from genetically modified seeds.
Apart from maize, cotton could also be headed 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.
But there’s also a big “if” into the equation. So far 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.
However, our experts at home, such as Dr Roshan Abdallah, who heads the country’s plant biosafety centre of excellence in Tanzania, says such trials still cannot be done at home because of the 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.
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”
That’s where we remain stuck as a country; we are still debating on how to compensate people in the event of possible harm from largely hypothetical dangers. The world has been consuming GM foods for nearly three decades now without any scientific evidence of harm to either human or animal health.
And, as we keep talking, our neighbours have joined the rest of the world and could soon be producing GM maize and Bt cotton commercially—in the next two years or so in the case of Kenya. Given our porous borders and truly inefficient border patrols we could soon be eating GM food produced next door, all the while pretending to be “protecting” our people imaginary harm.
The economic cost behind our lack of resolve is all too familiar. Cotton, for instance, 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.
With Bt cotton, we will be talking about more than the miserly 410,000 ha which are currently being sown to cotton during most farming seasons, and at almost zero risk from pest infestation.
In the meantime, climate change is also for real – and ‘going biotech’ is about the best policy decision we could be making at the moment.
Elsewhere across the world, biotechnology is proving to be the best way to providing food for a hungry tomorrow. The most compelling testimony to biotech crops is that, in the period 1996 to 2011, millions of farmers in 29 countries worldwide, made independent decisions to plant and replant biotech crops.
One principal reason underpins the trust and confidence of risk-averse farmers: biotech crops deliver sustainable and substantial, socioeconomic and environmental benefits.
As a resource-poor country, Tanzania cannot afford to feed on the fears of a largely uninformed anti-GM lobby – some of whose opponents eat GM food or survive on GM medicinal products even as they bad-mouth them.