SINCE the collapse of Tanzania's textile industries in late 1980s and subsequent privatisation in 1990s, the country has almost become a net clothing importer.
According to statistics from Ministry of Industry and Trade, most of the clothing imports come from the United States, European Union and Asia (China and India).
British Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson said in London recently that adopting genetically engineered cotton (Bt cotton) by farmers in most countries is inevitable.
Addressing a group of Bioscience for Farming in Africa fellowship journalists last week, Mr Paterson said there are more benefits to Bt cotton cultivation especially among poor smallholder farmers.
"GM cotton is a real success story. More than two thirds of global cotton production is now GM based, so it's likely that the majority of you in this room are wearing clothes made from GM crops," Paterson argued as journalists from Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania and Uganda mostly adorning second hand imported clothes listened.
"Why should we deny our local farmers benefits of Bt cotton, this is not a crop and already we are wearing clothes made from Bt cotton," argued Water and Irrigation Minister, Professor Jumanne Maghembe at a recent meeting.
Prof Maghembe said while presiding as a panelist at an Africa Green Revolution Forum (AGRF) on how technology can change growth of agriculture that genetic engineering is one way of increasing productivity and boosting incomes for local farmers. "For example, cotton is not a food crop.
Why don't we start with that so that we increase yields and help farmers earn more from this crop?" Prof Maghembe wondered. Statistics show that about 40 per cent of all Tanzanians rely directly or indirectly on the cotton industry most of which are smallholder farmers.
"To us cotton means life and the better the seeds the more the production, we simply need better seeds without restriction on where it comes from the technology used," said Bhokhe Yani, a resident of Butiama district.
Unlike many parts of the Lake Zone where cotton is cultivated extensively and the crop experienced some problems last season, Butiama has succeeded in using newly developed hybrid UK M08 variety developed by Ukiriguru Agriculture Research Institute in Mwanza.
British Secretary of State did mention Burkina Faso as an African country where Bt cotton is transforming lives of smallholder farmers. "Bt cotton has transformed lives of smallholder farmers in Burkina Faso which is why we are saying let this technology benefit more poor country farmers," Paterson stressed.
According to the latest Global Status of Commercialised Biotech/GM Crops for 2013 which was released by International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), two African countries are increasing their Bt cotton hectareage.
"In Africa, continued progress has been made with Burkina Faso and Sudan increasing their Bt cotton hectarage substantially," the ISAAA report said. The report further noted that in 2013, an additional seven African countries (Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda) have conducted field trials on a broad range of biotech crops which include cotton, maize, bananas, and cowpeas plus several orphan crops such as sweet potato.
Biotech enthusiasts in the country target cotton as the first crop, in which genetic engineering should be introduced because after all we are already paying billions in imported Bt cotton clothes.
"From a number of interactions the government leaders have had with areas that have benefitted from this technology, I understand they are working out ways on how such can assist here," Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) Senior Programme Officer for Agriculture Dr Nicholas Nyange said.
Dr Nyange argued that it's both immoral and defies logic to deny local cotton farmers cultivate Bt cotton while importing clothes made from the fiber using billions of shillings of local consumers. "Our farmers must have a stake in this highly paying sector," Dr Nyange argued.
But critics of the technology warn that allowing local farmers will likely have a disastrous outcome. Anti-GMO activists argue that allowing smallholder farmers adopt the technology which is owned and controlled by multinational corporations led by US based giant, Monsanto, is a recipe for disaster.
"Let those advocating for the (GM) crops to take a look at India," said Pelum Tanzania Country Coordinator, Donat Senzia. Mr Senzia argued that benefits of cultivating genetically modified organisms far out-way benefits being touted by its advocates.
In India where the government has endorsed cultivation of a number of GM crops including Bt cotton, an estimated 200,000 smallholder farmers have committed suicide between 1997 and 2002 mainly because of debts blamed on hiked prices of Bt seeds.
Dismissing arguments by pro-GMO scientists that local activists are being used by European government's and corporations which are afraid of losing the agro-chemicals market in the country, Senzia said.
"If there is a thinking that the push for us is by some European NGOs, ask them the same question, where are they getting and expecting to be getting the money for the GM research?
We know the gov of Tz sets less than 1% of the national budget for research, where will they get the money for GM research as the government is not funding?" he argued.
While scientists are optimistic that the government will soon relax regulations to allow for field trials and eventually commercial cultivation of GMOs, opponents believe that the strict liability clause in regulations accompanying the 2004 Environmental Management Act should be retained.