Victory for biotech lobby as Tanzania relaxes law on GMOs

Saturday June 6 2015

By ISAAC KHISA, The EastAfrican

Tanzania has reviewed its law on genetically modified organisms, paving the way for scientists in the country to carry out confined trials on crops such as maize and cassava, and effectively turning the tables on anti-GMO lobby groups.

Hussein Mansoor, assistant director of crop research at the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Co-operatives, said the strict liability clause in the Environment Management Biosafety Regulations has been replaced with the fault-based liability, meaning that anyone claiming compensation for damage would have to prove that whoever introduced the GMOs was at fault.

“... Scientists can now carry out confined field trials of biotech crops without fear,” said Dr Mansoor.

The strict liability clause meant that scientists, donors or partners funding the research were to be held accountable in the event of any damage that might occur during or after research on GMO crops, a scenario that saw scientists restrict themselves to contained trials.

The new clause allows scientists to carry out confined field trials of GM crops to ascertain their effects on humans and the environment, and whether the GM crops could be commercialised.

“Contained trials” means that genes and plant material are enclosed within a laboratory or greenhouse while in “confined field trials” they are kept in a specific area, usually a small piece of land set aside for the experiment.

This development comes at a time when Tanzanian scientists are keen to transfer their contained trials on drought- and insect-tolerant maize under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa and cassava varieties resistant to mosaic and brown streak diseases.

Aloise Kullaya, country co-ordinator for Tanzania Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, a public-private partnership and a plant breeder at Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute, said scientists in the country welcomed the move to revise the law for the benefit of farmers.

“We are happy that we are now able to carry out confined field trials, and have results for people to see, illustrating how it will benefit the farmers,” said Dr Kullaya. “Of course, we would be happier if the law could allow us to commercialise the products upon completing the research because that is the essence of research.”

WEMA is a public-private partnership project operating in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa, aims to develop drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize using conventional breeding, marker-assisted breeding and biotechnology. Its goal is to make these varieties available royalty-free to smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa through seed companies, with the Nairobi-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) as a co-ordinating agency.

Dr Kullaya said they plan to carry out the first confined field trials of GM modified maize tolerant to drought and pests this year, and hope to commercialise it when research is completed in coming years.

Daniel Otunge, the co-ordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa at AATF said Tanzania’s move to revise its GMO law is a sign that the government is appreciating the role of the new technology in improving agricultural production.

“This gives us hope that Tanzania is now providing a good working environment for its scientists to develop disease and drought-resistant crops for the benefit of its citizens,” said Mr Otunge.

The WEMA project is expected to deliver its GM maize in South Africa as early as 2017, followed by Kenya and Uganda, and then Mozambique and Tanzania, subject to regulatory approvals.

Tanzania’s move to revise its GMO law could have been informed by its legislators visit to Uganda in November last year on a fact finding mission.

The legislators, led by Binilith Mahenga, the State Minister for Environment visited the National Crops Resources Research Institute Namulonge and the National Agriculture Research Laboratories Kawanda, where confined field trials of GM maize, cassava and bananas are ongoing.