"I LIKE variety 5. The cob has many rows and the grains have filled the cob well. There are also two cobs on the maize stalk," Esther Liberati, 43-yearold farmer from Seloto village in Babati District in Tanzania, explains her number one choice from a set of 10 different types of maize being tested for adaptability to the region.
According to a recent article written by International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA)'s Catherine Njuguna, Ms Liberati was among some 100 farmers or so who took part in a series of field days organised by Africa RISING in her village.
Under a project dubbed Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) which is a public/ private partnership arrangement that aims to improve food security and rural livelihoods among smallholder farmers and their families, Liberati is excited with the new maize varieties after facing years of uncertainty due to persistent droughts.
Babati District, which is one of Tanzania's arid regions that has suffered regular droughts in recent years the worst of which came in 2011, heavily relies on maize as a staple. Poor rains, diseases and pests have meant that yields are poor and often Babati District of Manyara Region has been a regular recipient of food handouts when droughts strike.
Use of traditional seed varieties and poor weather has impacted heavily on smallholder maize farmers who are the country's economic backbone as they provide both food and foreign currency earnings for the country.
"Farmers in Babati can now plant maize and expect to harvest bumper yields because of the conventional hybrid variety which uses less water and matures early," said Dr Alois Kullaya, Principal Agriculture Research Officer and Mikocheni Agriculture Research Institute (MARI).
Dr Kullaya who is also Coordinator of WEMA project in the country said from harvesting less than half a tonne per hectare to four tonnes thanks to use of conventional hybrid varieties which are a result of years of cross breeding different species of maize.
"We have come up with five varieties which are both drought and disease resistant," said Dr Kullaya who further unveiled that the five hybrid varieties have since been submitted to National Seed Certifying Agency (NASCA) for approval. As the population increases and climate change becomes a greater factor in food security, risk of hunger could increase up to 20 per cent by 2050, scientists warn.
In a bid to find a solution to such challenges, WEMA project was hatched by several international development partners and implemented in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa and Uganda. Under the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the project is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with National Agricultural Research Institutes in all the five countries International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and US based seed biotech company, Monsanto as partners.
But while many smallholder farmers are happy with the conventional hybrid maize variety and totally unaware of presence of much superior seed varieties dubbed genetically modified organisms which some scientists argue provide much better results and provide solution to Africa's food needs.
"With GM seeds, the yields will improve further and resistance to pests and disease will be contained," argued Dr Kullaya who is frustrated by the government's red tape in approving field trials for the crops which are a result of a gene from one species being administered into another seed.
MARI has since 2009 undertaken confined laboratory trials for GM maize in Makutopora village of Dodoma Rural District with promising results but stringent liability regulations are preventing field trials of the same.
According to the country's Biosafety Regulations of 2009, there is strict liability principle which essentially holds anyone associated with importing, transporting, selling or using a GM product liable for any perceived harm associated with it.
Scientists argue that the 'guilty until proven innocent' approach is detrimental to the technology which is already being used by over 17 million farmers globally.
With GM maize, local farmers who harvest between 1.5 and 2 metric tonnes per hectare will quadruple their yields to between 8-10 tonnes.
Dr Kullaya is frustrated that while the government is dilly dallying in approving the modern technology, neighbouring Kenya and Uganda are moving faster towards commercial production endorsement which may also affect Tanzania as seeds will likely cross borders.
Kenyan born Prof Calestous Juma, an advocate of GM technology urged countries such as Tanzania to ignore pressure from European partners opposed to the technology and adopt it for future food security.
Prof Juma who is author of a book titled, 'The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa,' argues in it that the biggest challenge facing Africa today is lack of innovation in agriculture production. Juma who is also Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Science, Technology and Globalisation Project said: "When GM crops were first commercially released in 1996, critics argued that they would only benefit industrialised countries.
In 2012 emerging economies overtook industrialised countries as the main adopters of GM crops," Prof Juma argued in a paper titled How Africa can Feed the World published last June. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, from 1996 to 2011 transgenic crops added 98.2 billion US dollars to the value of global agricultural output, over 50 per cent of which accrued to emerging economies, he argued in his paper.
Prof Juma further pointed out that the use of transgenic crops has reduced the use of active pesticide ingredients by nearly 473 million kg, while also reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 23.1 billion kilogrammes or an equivalent of taking 10.2 million cars off the road.
"But not all the regions of the world are reaping the full benefits of agricultural biotechnology. Of the 28 countries growing transgenic crops, only four (South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan) are in Africa," he lamented while urging governments on the continent to embrace GM technology.
But Juma's critics argue otherwise. "Tanzania's problem is not poor food production but infrastructure to enable commodities move easily from regions with surplus to areas of scarcity," argues Abdallah Mkinde who is Coordinator of Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity (TAB).
Mr Mkinde also argued that GM technology is not a solution to the country's food security warning that introducing transgenic crops risks surrendering the country's food sovereignty to multinational seed companies which own GM technology. "We don't own GM technology and certainly it doesn't provide a solution to our food needs.
Our best solution would be to improve soil fertility using farm manure, hybrid seeds and rural infrastructure," he argued. Mkinde has a strange bed fellow in Howard Buffet who also opposes US push for the adoption of GM technology by African countries.
"Small farmers in Africa and elsewhere often lack the income and training to buy and use biotech seeds and may become skeptical of technology if new products are used improperly," said Mr Buffet. Buffet who is World Food Programme's Hunger Ambassador argued recently that Africa is not a place for multinational GM technology corporations to make money.
Let's learn from our past mistakes in the 30 years and accept that this American approach of one size fits all is not going to work in Africa," he noted.
Through his Howard G. Buffett Foundation's, the son of American wealth philanthropist, Warren Buffet has years of experience in working with Africa through projects in Ghana, Liberia and South Africa where he assists farmers with modern hybrid seeds, training in good crop husbandry practices and entrepreneurship skills.
"While on my visit to Liberia, I found a woman who had cultivated GMO maize the previous year and kept stock of seeds and replanted the following year but the yield was very poor and I asked her why, she couldn't answer me," Buffett pointed out highlighting the general ignorance which many farmers on the continent have.
GMO seeds should be purchased every season because their productivity drops by up to 40 per cent if replanted which Buffet argued with hiked prices of up to 240 US dollars (approx. 386,032/-) per 50kg bag, it's out of reach by many local farmers.