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THE CITIZEN NEWSPAPER.
By Al-amani Mutarubukwa
Dar es Salaam. Tanzania is still lagging behind in conducting confined field trials for genetically modified (GM) maize compared with other East African countries, says a researcher.The situation is mainly attributed to country’s strict bio-safety law.
“We have had successful mock trials since 2009, but we failed to move to the next step last August because the government did not grant us a permit,” the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (Wema) project country coordinator Alois Kullaya told BusinessWeek recently.
Uganda and Kenya began their confined field trials at the end of last year.Organised by the US-based non-profit African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Monsanto and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre, the region’s research bodies embarked on the Wema project to developing drought-resistant maize varieties that would then be distributed to farmers after obtaining individual country’s regulatory approval.
The aim is to increase yields by 24-35 per cent.
Dr Kullaya said it was high time that the government used less restrictive national bio-safety regulations, otherwise the country would lose the benefits of that technology.“If all goes well, we are planning to conduct the trials this year, once we obtain the permit from the National Bio-safety Committee,” said Dr Kullaya, who is also a principal agricultural research officer at Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute.
Maize is the most widely grown staple food in Africa. However, frequent and more severe drought due to climate change has prompted researchers to look for more adaptive measures.
The world’s poorest continent, where agriculture contributes up to a quarter of GDP in some countries and is an important source of foreign exchange, is increasingly turning to GM crops to boost food supplies.But critics and consumers, mostly in Africa and Europe, have questioned the safety of GM foods and have banned their import or cultivation due to fears they could harm humans and wildlife.
If the maize is approved, it will be licensed to AATF, which is funded by the United States and British governments.
“We are expecting to have the commercial multiplication of the seeds by 2017,” said Dr Kullaya.
“The expected Wema transgenic drought-tolerant maize seed will be sub-licensed to local seed companies royalty-free for a term or duration to be determined based on future product deployment agreements,” James Gethi, the Wema country coordinator in Kenya, told BusinessWeek recently in Dar es Salaam.
Trials are also planned for Mozambique and South Africa where GM regulations are less restrictive.
More than 30 countries, including all of the European Union, have restricted or banned the production of GM crops because they are not considered proven safe.
Meanwhile global plantings of genetically modified crops increased 10 per cent last year compared to the previous year, according to a study released by an organisation that promotes crop biotechnology.
Last year, 15.4 million farmers in 29 countries planted genetically modified crops on 148 million hectares (366 million acres), said the report from the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
The group’s chairman, Clive James, said a rapid increase since 1996 shows that “biotech crops are the fastest-adopted crop technology in the history of modern agriculture.”The United States remained the largest biotech crop growing country with nearly 67 million hectares (165 million acres) of soybeans, corn and cotton.
Brazil was second with 25 million hectares (62 million acres), an increase of 19 percent over 2009.
Developing countries grew 48 per cent of biotech crops last year, the report said, adding that they will surpass industrialized countries by 2015..