Dar es Salaam. Tanzania’s agriculture is dominated by small-scale farmers, who however produce ample food to feed the nation.
The sector employs over 70 per cent of the workforce and accounts for about 30 per cent of the national GDP.
But as the population is increasing, being 54 million currently, and expected to double by 2050, challenges are likely to arise.
There are already worries that climate change is deepening the vulnerability of agriculture to disasters.
Realising this, the government and stakeholders have been striving to improve agriculture.
Recently, the second phase of the Agricultural Sector Development Programme, in which research and development have been prioritised, was launched.
Tanzania is now carrying genetic engineering researches on maize and cassava to improve the availability of seeds, combat pests and mitigate impacts of climate change.
Biotechnology research on cassava is going on at Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute in Dar es Salaam.
Research on genetically modified maize is being undertaken at Makutupora Agricultural Research Institute in Dodoma.
The maize research started in 2006 under the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project, covering Kenya, Uganda, Mozambique and South Africa.
Apart from that project, genetic engineering research on maize is underway at Makutupora.
However, some activists and politicians strongly oppose the technology.
There have been fears on uses of GMOs all over the world including the dependence on multinational seed companies such Monsanto of the US.
Other doubts are such as sharing pollen with plants that are not genetically modified, allergies, cancer and the destruction of ecosystem.
Breeding researcher Nicolas Nyange says biotechnology is important for agricultural development.
He told journalists in Dodoma recently that genetic engineering involved direct manipulation of an organism’s genes using biotechnology. It is a transplantation of genes from one organism to another to get required characteristics.
“The organism whose genes have been transplanted is called a ‘genetically modified organism’, or ‘GMO’, in short,” he says.
The technology is normally used in agriculture to increase productivity, tackle resistance from diseases and drought, acidity and alkalinity and increase nutrition.
He clarifies that genetic engineering is the improvement of biotechnological process since the 19th century when human beings started germinating plants through tissue culture. “The latest technology started in 1970s in which molecular biology was engaged and later genetic engineering,” he says.
Dr Nyange says the technology is used to produce plants through tissue culture, detecting diseases, livestock vaccines, better seeds and environmental protection over climate change.
“The tissue culture technique enables production of plants without diseases, increase number of plants at a time and with the same morphology. Molecular biology enables scientists to identify genes characteristics, marker-assisted breeding and identifying diseases affecting crops,” he says.
A senior environment officer and biosafety inspector in the Vice President’s Office, Mr Thomas Chali, says Tanzania has legalised GMO researches and uses through laws, policies and administrative systems.
He cites the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety Convention.
He also mentioned the National Environment Act No. 20 of 2004 and modern biotechnological regulations of 2009 and its amendments of 2015.
There have been some agreements between seed producers, researchers and farmers for cost-sharing through royalty.
In Burkina Faso, farmers paid 60 per cent, researchers got 12 per cent and Monsanto 28 per cent.
Research conducted by the Department of Economics at the University of Dar es Salaam shows that the application of GM seeds is beneficial.
The study was done on cassava and maize in 26 regions and 161 districts. Dr Remidius Ruhinduka says the total net profit value will be Sh6.75 billion for maize and Sh857.53 billion for cassava annually if Tanzania fully uses GM seeds.
“GM maize and cassava are economically beneficial to producers and consumers. The results are qualitatively robust to different variations of our key assumptions; although quantitatively different. There are some variations on the benefits across various agro-ecological zones. Delay in commercialisation will likely lower the expected net total benefits.”