interviewBy Finnigan Wa Simbeye
WATER Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, through African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the project's lead institution, has secured a technology of developing drought-tolerant and insect-pest protected maize varieties, royalty free, from American Monsanto. Staff Writer FINNIGAN wa SIMBEYE had an interview with AATF Corporate Communications Officer Grace Wachoro...
Q: Is it true that Water Efficient Maize for Africa has secured rights for African farmers to use genetically modified drought and disease resistant maize without paying loyalty to Monsanto and other patent right owners?
A: The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project is developing drought-tolerant and insect-pest protected maize varieties for use by smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. The project is currently being implemented in five African countries--Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa. The Project is using droughttolerant and insect-protected genes that Monsanto has donated royaltyfree.
The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), the lead WEMA institution, will through the project develop and sub-licence the drought-tolerant and insect-pest protected maize varieties to local seed companies, royalty-free. This means that there will be no payments going back to Monsanto for the use of technologies that have been donated to the project.
AATF will also not charge local seed producers any special fees to produce or multiply WEMA drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize varieties. Consequently, local seed producers will therefore not charge any extra technology fees to their customers, the farmers.
The first WEMA conventional hybrid (non-GM) has been sub-licenced to seven local seed producers in Kenya under the trade name of DroughtTEGO and will be sold to farmers in the short rains season of 2013.
Q: How long will the agreement last and which species are involved? A: There is no time limit associated with the agreement and farmers will not be required to pay royalty for the maize varieties even after the project ends.
The Project is using the cold shock protein B (CspB) gene to improve drought-tolerance in maize. The gene is from a common soil miroorganism Bacillus subtilis, which is used in the preparation of Japanese soy food, natto.
The gene was initially identified in bacteria under cold stress. This gene helps plants to cope with the stress of drought. Similarly the insect protection trait was developed from the naturally occurring soil bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt for short, which produces a protein that is toxic to the digestive systems of a targeted group of insects but not to mammals.
Q: Are there any other crops used as staple in Africa and Tanzania like bananas being considered under this project?
A: In Tanzania, other undergoing GM researches in the labs include developing cassava varieties that are resistant to cassava mosaic disease and the cassava brown streak disease. In addition, confined field trials of transgenic cowpea, cassava, banana and rice are being conducted in other African countries--Uganda, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria.
Q: How do countries like Tanzania benefit from this project? A: Smallholder farmers in Sub- Saharan African countries including Tanzania who will access the improved drought-tolerant and insectprotected maize varieties will greatly benefit. The improved varieties will provide valuable economic, agronomic and environmental benefits to millions of farmers by helping them produce more reliable harvests under moderate drought conditions and better grain quality because of reduced insect damage.
This will help farmers harvest enough to feed their families, a surplus which they can sell to increase their incomes and help strengthen local communities and countries. The addition of insect protection will also reduce pesticide use which will bring benefits to both the environment and human health. This will consequently make countries like Tanzania more food secure.
Q: Activists opposed to GMOs see this as a ploy by industries and their lobby groups to lure African governments into accepting the seeds, which will not last long. How do you explain it?
A: WEMA seeds are hybrids. Farmers will be free to save seed for replanting. However, we are advising farmers not to save and replant hybrid seeds because the yield advantage declines by each cycle of replanting. Just as with traditional seeds, it is good farm management practice to source and plant the best available seeds each season for consistently good harvests.
This will protect the crop from failures caused by loss in seed quality which occurs each time the harvested grain is saved as seed and used for planting. The WEMA Project believes that this technology will provide African farmers with more growing options to make the best choice for their operation. Farmers may choose to adopt them, or may decide to continue growing the varieties they currently use as they have the same freedom to choose their seeds as they do now.