Arusha — Tanzania says it cannot afford to be left behind in technologies that increase crop yields, reduce farm costs and increase farm profits, Arusha-based TPRI is pioneering GMO experiments.
With an ever-increasing global population and massive third world hunger, Africa has never been overly excited over genetically modified food. Instead, in many places, genetically modified food is treated as the greatest threat ever to human civilization.
Now Tanzania is thinking twice, and actually not dismissing GMO as a threat, as it joins six other African countries in conducting in-depth scientific research that would eventually open its doors to Genetically Engineered Products.
It will start the GMO's Confined Field Trials (CFT) in Southern parts of the country where cotton farming was stopped in 1968 in a government move then aimed at halting the spread of redball worm disease that affected cotton yield.
Depending on the outcome of the GM cotton, which Tanzanian scientists say will be positive and well received by the cotton farming communities, GM cassava will be their next target.
A cabinet paper on GMO policy has already been prepared and Parliament is scheduled to debate and approve the approaches towards GMO technologies in mid this year, according to Dr. Jeremiah Haki, Tanzanian agricultural ministry's Director for Research.
He says Tanzania, which largely depends on agriculture, cannot afford to be left behind in technologies that increase crop yields, reduce farm costs and increase farm profits.
Other countries that have already started genetically modified crops trials are Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Kenya. South Africa is the only African country that is already in commercial production of GM crops.
Tanzania is one of the countries that has ratified the Cartagena protocol on biosafety, an international law which was negotiated under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and has basic requirements for member countries to comply when pursuing GMO.
Dr. Sivramiah 'Shanthu' Shantharam, a Member of the WHO/FAO Consultative Committee on Biotechnology- Food Safety, was in Tanzania last week for a seminar aimed to equip East African plant inspectors on GMO technology.
Senior phytosanitary inspectors from Uganda's ministry of agriculture, phytosanitary services and commission for science and technology attended the GM training workshop in Arusha, so were their counterparts from Kenya Plant Heath Services and Commission for science and technology.
The objective of the workshop, which involved EA plant inspectors, included to familiarize phytosanitary inspectors with the principles and procedures of compliance and inspection required for the execution of safe confined field trials (CFTs) of GM crops (GMCs), as well as and to enhance the participants' understanding of concepts and issues associated with modern agrobiotechnology.
Kenyan and Ugandan participants said they were impressed with Tanzania's biosafety structure and hoped their governments would emulate their East African partner and start similar structures.
In Tanzania, the National Biotechnology Advisory Committee, NBAC, has been established under the Ministry of Science Technology and Higher Education (MSTHE) and placed at Commission for Science & Technology.
It is the national focal point for the biotechnology/biosafety activities in Tanzania.
The NBAC consists of members from various institutions which include policy makers, government agencies, R&D institutions, and the private sector. The NBAC is an advisory body regarding introduction and development of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in the country.
Decisions by this body take into account human and environmental safety, public concerns, ethical, and socio-economics factors.
Dr.Shantharam said that time was ripe for East Africa to start GM related experiments, saying Africa should start to benefit from GMO technology, that he said have the potentials of alleviating the problem of hunger in Third World countries.
Dr Hussein Mongi, Alpha Seed Company Director of Research and Development, said with the GMO training workshop, the East Africa region biosafety inspectors will be more efficient and effective in performing their responsibilities of enforcing biosafety regulations in their respective countries and eastern Africa as a whole.
The key benefit in regional biosafety regulations harmonization is to have in all the three countries personnel who are well-trained in the application of the same standard regulations and who can effectively and consistently enforce these regulations.
The GMO's Confined Field Trials (CFT) in Southern parts could be good news to members of parliament in Southern highland regions who have been calling on he government to find alternative means to re-start cotton production in the regions.
Once the bacterium is introduced into crops, they are programmed to kill pests that try to feed on them, protecting food crops from insects that might reduce agricultural yield, according to scientist Dr. Roshan Abdallah.
Tanzanian scientists will also research into a genetically modified form of cassava that will deter and resist virus that have been a major drawback to cassava growing in the country, Dr. Abdallah (Mrs) from the Tropical Pesticides Research Institute (TPRI), said.
Cassava is a major staple in the diet of as many as 500 million people, mostly in Africa but they have lately not been resistant to the infamous Cassava Mosaic, a virus that has ravaged crops across Eastern Africa.
Under GMO technology, many food plants are being genetically engineered to resist pests that include bacillus thuringiensis, commonly known as Bt, a bacterium that occurs naturally in the soil.
Genetic engineering makes it possible to locate the gene that produces Bt proteins lethal to insects and transfer the gene into crop plants.
Dr Gratian Bamwenda, the Director General of the Tropical Pesticides Research Institute (TPRI), says his institutions will closely monitor the development and testing of a genetically engineered products and provide scientific advices concerning their safety.
He said bio-safety review teams will assess the potential risks associated with GMOs and evaluates the possibility of the risk occurring and the magnitude of harm.
The scientist said where GMO related risks are identified, management measures are investigated, which will minimise the risks and ensure safety of the proposed activity.
Although there is still some ambivalence about the long-term effects of genetically modified foods, many consumers in East Africa are probably already eating these products without their knowledge.
South Africa and the United States have made trials in Bt maize and if maize has been imported from these countries it's possible that people have eaten these genetically modified products.
In Africa there are no laws at present which require food containers to have labels detailing the way their ingredients have been made and, as a result, there is no way that consumers can know what they are really eating.