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Hard question: Who should own GMOs seed companies?

ON the dawn of 15th January 2021, Tanzanians woke up to news over the Ministry of Agriculture’s decision to suspend all the research and trials on drought – tolerant Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) that have been taking place at Makutupora Research Centre in Dodoma and TARI Mikocheni in Dar es Salaam.

To environmentalists, health campaigners, and economists; this as a great decision that was long overdue. Those who cheer this courageous step are not unmindful of the importance of research as a last commonly agreed resort to resolve scientific disputes, far from truth.

Their concern – which happens to be mine as well – are tied to the recent trend exhibited by these major seed production companies who use their financial muscles to influence many of these research and trials. They have happened in many countries, Tanzania stood not to be an exception, at least we thought.

The gist of all this crusade against GM seeds emanates from their unbearable impacts on human life. Apart from causing effects on soil health and long-term plant fecundity, these seeds are intentionally designed to inhibit reusability by farmers.

This reduces farmers’ sovereignty thanks to a small number of companies – the likes of Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Bayer, Dow and BASF – who holds the patent these seeds which give rise to reduced competition, an avenue which is suitable for profit making entities to increase prices.

Before proceeding, so that we don’t get lost in the bush, it is important to clarify that the problem here is not Genetically Modified Seeds in its literal meaning. There is no harm in modifying the DNA strands of an organism by blending it with better qualities than before, in fact this is the common practice in our research institutions in the country for years now.

So there is no problem with the term, the danger however arises when that modification brings up bad qualities, as a result creating bigger obstacles than what existed before. It appears, at least from the surface, that the future of food security and agribusiness rests in the hands of the few global corporates who will decide the one to feed, starve, raise, abase and what not.

This too much power vested on them defeats a simple logical thinking on sustainability of this status quo and in retrospective give rise to the hard question, who should own the seed companies then? There are a number of schools of thought, but maybe it’s prudent that we have a look on two of them.

There is this China model In 2017 China made a move by buying a Swiss based Syngenta – the leading agrochemical producer and a third biggest seeds producing company in the world.

ChemChina, a stateowned company, is the one that paid 43 billion US dollar to the former company owners to shift its ownership and headquarters from Basel to Beijing.

While there is still a huge debate in the world now over the efficacy of the deal, one thing is certain, China is going to have an upper hand on the fate of its seed business. It seems like they learnt a hard way from the ‘poke deficit’ scenario they faced in the early 2000’s.

In that year, Chinese market faced a steep shortage of poke meat. Since poke to Chinese is fish to Lake Zone or Coastal areas inhabitants in Tanzania – nearly impossible to replace – the citizenry went through the roof.

Under the fear of uprising, the Chinese government responded by opening up its stores and supplying to the market to increase its availability and lower the prices. The strong part of this model is that you put the business in the hands of an entity that is directly responsible to the public.

Nonetheless, this way has its thorny corners. Much as it attracts trust from the public, it doesn’t guarantee the efficiency and effectiveness the market requires, attributes which are usually met by private enterprises.

There is also a Western model This is a largely liberal, giving an opportunity for anyone with potential to give out their best. This is the same soil that gave rise to the Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta. And all the fruits associated by them today, be them good or bad, are borne by this same system.

The current one in the country is more or less ‘Western’ although its ramifications, probably due to its infancy, are not as dire as those we have already seen. Methinks, private – led seed production coupled with strong regulatory environment is the most assuring way.

One – size – fits – all approach may not work on this, it necessitates solution development that will meet the challenges of the local environment for today and tomorrow, no wonder it is a “question of the centuries”.

And so to invoke the London School of Economics academicians’ phrase while responding to Queen Elizabeth – who in 2008 asked them why they couldn’t foresee the coming of a highly ravaging economic crisis – this subject matter requires a “collective imagination”.

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Author: ZIRACK ANDREW

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