WHILE government reviews the bio-safety regulatory framework, it is public institutions that are expected to handle the entire process from research to distribution of genetically engineered seeds, Dr Joseph Ndunguru at Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute said.
Dr Ndunguru, a molecular plant virologist and principal investigator of the Rockefeller Foundation-funded project, 'Cassava Genetic Transformation For The Longevity Of Cassava Virus Resistance in Tanzania', has moved to allay fears that farmers could lose their sovereignty to self serving companies once genetic engineering of crops starts.
He made these statements while speaking during the tour of British activist, Mark Lynas. Dr Ndunguru said if the review spells out clear, flexible and supportive biotechnology regulations then public institutions and local researchers will be able to carry out probes in the country.
Researchers are currently calling for a review of the strict liability clause in bio-safety regulatory framework to be removed to increase the output of crops.
The contestable clause in the bio-safety regulatory framework states that even if GMOs are to be introduced, the companies supplying them should be accountable in case anything goes wrong.
According to Dr Ndunguru, several advancements have been made recently in Africa in biotechnology application, with plant biotechnology being highlighted as having the potential to contribute to food security and poverty alleviation goals.
"In our country, it fits well in increasing agricultural productivity and ensuring food security as stipulated in the Kilimo Kwanza drive and MKUKUTA," he said. Currently, there is a divided opinion in the cotton industry on whether the strict liability clause in bio-safety regulatory framework should be removed to increase output.
Speaking to reporters, Mr Lynas said that as Africans are at a crossroads on whether or not to accept biotechnology in farming, the rest of the world is making big advances in the area.
"The world is making remarkable strides that will see Africa remain hungry and an importer of food despite the abundant availability of fertile land," he said.
Mr Lynas said ignorance and the lack of appropriate information on the subject offers NGOs and some countries in the West the opportunity to intensify the anti-GMO agenda in Africa.
According to Mr Lynas Africa is being denied the opportunity to apply biotechnology in agriculture in order to create a market for GMO foods grown in developed nations.
He said farmers in Africa have the right to choose which crops to grow and in no way should not be they be forced to adopt new technology but should be educated on the merits and demerits of their choice.
He cautioned that organic crops should not drive out GMOs and equally, GMOs should not drive out organic crops.
"We don't need to be pro-organic or pro-GMOs; it is just a matter of trying new developed crops to improve both quality and quantity," he said.
He said in Africa only Burkina Faso and Sudan have already ventured into GM cotton farming (Bt Cotton) while Kenya, Uganda and Malawi are doing field trials of the same. Burkina Faso has emerged as one of the more progressive and proactive sub-Saharan African countries regarding biotechnology.
Dr Ndunguru added that Africa needs to embrace diversity of technology that will help to ensure food security and help to reduce abject poverty.
"The only way we can solve the ailing African crops like cassava, bananas and cotton is through the use of biotechnology," said Dr Ndunguru.
"For example, cassava mosaic disease was discovered in Tanzania in 1892, but scientists are still grappling with it." Mr Lynas says African scientists should work with their counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world to share knowledge, skills and experience on the benefits and challenges of the technology in the continent.
GM crops sub-sector's approval is also hindered by some legislations, such as the Biosafety Regulations of 2009. Dr Aloys Kullaya from Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute said these laws are a bottleneck because they did not allow laboratory research and tests to be taken for field trials.
The regulations employ the "Precautionary Principle", which means that the lack of scientific evidence is not a basis for refusing or restricting GMOs or biotech products.
The regulations also employ the "Strict Liability" principle, which broadly states that any "person who imports, arranges transit, makes use of, releases or places on the market a GMO or product of a GMO, shall be strictly liable for any harm caused by such a GMO or product of a GMO", which should be "fully compensated".