REPORTS that the government has suspended research and trials on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will have come as a surprise to many, and a welcome surprise to a wide range of activists in the agricultural and food security sector.
To plan is indeed to choose, in which case there was need to make a proper choice on the matter – and a firm official decision has been made which will guide crop research and improvement programmes for the foreseeable future.
That is what is positive about the measure, that it puts an end to debate in a clear and specific manner so that research institutions know what is relevant.
Along with suspending genetic modification research and trials, the Ministry of Agriculture has imposed exhaustive scrutiny on imported seeds to ward off scientifically engineered versions.
This is going by recent remarks by the respective minister, Prof Adolf Mkenda, as toured the Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) centre at Mikocheni in Dar es Salaam.
The minister explained the decision as being tied to the need to conserve the country’s genetic resources and local seed varieties – all having to do with biodiversity issues.
The minister’s hosts then saw why the drought-tolerant GMO maize trials that have been going on at the Makutupora Research Centre in Dodoma and another for cassava at TARI Mikocheni had to halt operations forthwith.
The maize project sought to tackle periodic infestation of fall armyworm, while the cassava trial was meant to end diseases such as the brown streak virus.
The minister noted that free entrance of foreign seeds spreads seed market dominance by a few agricultural companies, with local farmers forced to buy from them every year and hence creating seed dependence. This will make most biodiversity enthusiasts clap heartily.
Tied with the clampdown on genetic modification is the importation of such seeds, where laboratories to test seeds at a molecular level will be done, and to that effect a number of laboratories will be improved.
It is quite possible for the country to attain food self-sufficiency using traditional seeds or improving upon those varieties by hybridisation and other methods.
In that case, the decision can’t be said to set the stage for any actual difficulties in the supply of grains, legumes, fruits or vegetables. It’s only that the shortcut towards the elimination of sugar-borne pests by altering the sugar compounds by modification is ruled out.
As commonly happens in business, investment and research, there are spheres in science that are uplifted and others downgraded on account of option for new directions.
This is when biodiversity and the quest for genetic modification will have lived side by side, struggling for policy space.
Now this shall no longer be the case, as genetic modification will be taught as an optional course in this or that stream, but not being part of scientific programmes in local institutions.
We can live with that, but evidently the battle against pests will prove a little harder to handle when we try to marry varieties of crops to get better ones; pests adapt.
The minister’s audience at TARI Mikocheni, including the institute’s national level leaders, aired inclination and ability to focus ahead.
In fact, TARI director general Dr Geoffrey Mkamilo went on to advise researchers to start seeing things in a wider vision in line with the minister’s directive, including by working harder to put their knowledge and skills to further support agriculture. Well said, that.