Tanzania biotech debate heats up

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania – The government has been advised to play its part by creating conducive environment so as to enable local researchers to do their job on the merit and shortcoming of biotech crops.

The adoption of biotech crops has been a contentious debate in Tanzania. Scientists say the technology has no health effects as it has been propagated by activists while policy makers are hesitant to make a decision either way.

The ongoing debate has caused panic among many farmers who due to bad weather have suffered poor harvests.

According to a study by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), titled ‘Planting the future: opportunities and challenges for using crop genetic improvement technologies for sustainable agriculture,’ a billion people on this planet experience hunger.

The EASAC study goes on to state that another billion eat a diet lacking in essential vitamins and minerals. 

According to the study, as the debate on GM technology continues, the world’s population continues to grow and, over the next 40 years, agricultural production will have to increase by some 60%.

But several Ugandan and Tanzanian scientists say the future is bright because these challenges can beaten by GM technology.

“What is missing is the government willingness to allow the widely use of biotech crops,” Chief Researcher, from the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH), Dr Nicholaus Nyange said.

Dr Nyange said, biotech crops could be used as an alternative to solve the said challenges that have been facing Africa farmers most of the time. The issue of climate change, drought and disease.

In Uganda, Head of the Biotechnology Centre at Kawanda, Dr. Andrew Kiggundu said they have developed new varieties of bananas resistant to the devastating banana bacterial wilt disease, nematodes and weevils.

Dr Kiggundu told a group of Ugandan and Tanzania journalists, who toured the centre as part of their field trip to learn about biotech organized by the Bioscience for Farming in Africa, that the new varieties developed in collaboration with the Queensland University of Technology, Australia, are still being monitored in confined field trial gardens at the research institute.

The Kawanda’s researchers have also fortified yellow bananas (Ndiizi), mostly eaten as fruits, with Vitamin A, Zinc and Iron. 

The three nutrients, essential for proper growth in children, intellectual development and supply of blood in the body, were got from genes of maize and a special type of foreign bananas called Aspina.

“Banana is a staple food. Some people can eat bananas daily but still lack these nutrients. A number of children are stunted while many expectant mothers die due to lack of enough blood. This is what the new varieties are to address,” Kiggundu said.

Although genetic modification has attracted the closest attention, it is only one of a clutch of new breeding technologies to have been developed in recent decades. The term GM is generally taken to mean the introduction into an organism of genetic material from a different species.

The Managing Director of Tanseed International, Isaka Mashauri said last week recently the government has to allow farmers to choose the seeds they want, whether traditional or biotech crops.

According to Mashauri, who his firm engaged in quality seed production and marketing of crop varieties, the ongoing debate about GM technology is confusing farmers. “Farmers are in dilemma now,” Mashauri said.

“What the government has to do, is to create  a conducive environment for researchers to do their job, so that farmers will be able to know the bad and good of biotech crops,” 

The scientists are the only the communities that could clearly articulate the consequences of research findings and the opportunities for agricultural innovation,” Dr Nyange said.

He said the regulatory framework for crop genetic improvement technologies must be reformulated appropriately to be science-based, transparent, proportionate and predictable, taking into account the extensive experience gained and good practice implemented worldwide.

According to Mashauri, if the government will be able to explain the pros and cons of using biotech crops will help farmers decide on whether to adopt the technology or not.

He said that people are hesitant to use biotech crops because they do not know their impacts on their lives, urging the government to impart more knowledge on the organisms.

The global value of biotech seed alone was $13.2 billion in 2011, with the end product of commercial grain from biotech maize, soybean grain and cotton valued at approximately $160 billion or more per year.

Players in agriculture business markets include seed companies, agrochemical companies, distributors, farmers, grain elevators, and universities that develop new crops and whose agricultural extensions advise farmers on best practices.