Crop technology policy platform crowded, confused

08Dec 2018
Dar es Salaam
The Guardian
Crop technology policy platform crowded, confused

HESITATION and outright self-contradiction is being noticed in the manner in which top level policy makers are conducting crop technology decisions, with perennial disputes on the future of crop technology in the background.

For several months it appeared that the East African Community (EAC) and other policy stakeholders and trading partners were moving in the direction of harmonizing verification and clearance procedures for adoption of systematic crop technology, that is, which does beyond hybrids for genetic modification processes. While local stakeholders were upbeat about that, the process has been frozen.

At the same time there is movement in the direction of the government entering into partnership with two companies, identified as Silverlands and Quality Food Products, to increase the manufacturing of seeds inside the country instead of importing them.

Usually the term quality seeds refer to hybrid seeds or traditional seeds enriched with compounds from other varieties to enhance their resilience to various environmental factors, from drought to pests.

At the same time there is a broad industry handling trade in pesticides, crop research, extension and a robust ideology of protecting native species from extinction.

In that case there are two visions of the future contesting for policy space, with one appearing to be bent on eliminating the present combination of seeds and research into their improvement as an irrelevance, in preference to systematic techno-seeds to end all problems.

Tied to that issue, which was being handled by localized or regional formats of testing and verification, so that the basis of modification remains local in large measure, is a protectionist ethos that is now prevalent.

For companies to move into large scale ventures they can’t rely on market forces but seek to work in tandem with the government, against rivals.

There is apparently an auxiliary problem, where genetic modification actually targets a few major cash crops, especially cotton where ensuring quality has become a problem.

While there are trade disputes between Kenya and Tanzania for a while, that country’s crop authorities have lately announced switching to genetically modified cotton instead of importing from Tanzania as the quality is poor. 

There is also maize where drought resistance and pest attacks owing to its sugar are huge problems, but replacing the sugar for salt risks eliminating the maize for human consumption and into a salty fodder for livestock.

That is why it is possible stakeholders need to sit and examine the possibility of fragmenting the issue into policy packets for specific crop sub-sectors and finally for each particular crop, so that policy on genetic cotton which is strictly commercial, can be distinguished from policy on maize.

Nobody for instance is talking of genetic coffee as it isn’t a market mover commercially, while it is the opposite for cotton, both in terms of quality and cutting down costs, so as to remain relevant in the market. In that case a one size shoe fits all approach is inappropriate, the big debate for or against acceptance of modification.

It also means that there is room for the government to revisits its directive on ‘ending’ research on genetic modification, as it can’t deny its specific relevance in various areas.

But stakeholders must also avoid a ‘winner take all’ approach, one solution for all crops, as it is unviable. A selective method works better.