IN the last three decades there has been a very rapid development in the safe use of modern biotechnology which has brought positive effects on the agricultural sectors, human and animal health.
Recognising this in order to increase productivity in the production and service sectors for the community, the Tanzanian government prepared and defined the National Biotechnology Policy of 2010, the National Agricultural Policy of 2013 as well as the National Modern Biotechnology Management System of the year 2005.
This system includes the National Environmental Policy of the year 2021 preceded by the Policy of the year 1997, the Environmental Management Act of 2004 as well as the Guidelines and Regulations for Managing the Safe Use of Modern Biotechnology of the year 2009 and as amended in 2015 to enable research to be carried out here in the country.
Considering that importance, on February 12 last year, Vice- President Dr Philip Mpango launched the new Environmental Policy for 2021 in Dodoma.
Deputy Executive Secretary of the Tanzania Biotechnology Association, Dr Nicholas Nyange took time to explain what all this means in his interview with the Daily News.
In this article, Dr Nyange explains the meaning of biotechnology as any method that uses biological systems of living organisms to make, improve products or processes for specific uses.
“Modern biotechnology, which is also known as genetic engineering or genetic modification (GMO) is a method that involves transferring genes or genes that carry a desired characteristic from one organism to another organism and obtain a genetically improved organism,” he says.
He said that the safe use of modern biotechnology is a strategy to ensure that the research and use of harmful products and genetically modified organisms do not cause harm to humans, animals or the environment.
According to Dr Nyange, modern biotechnology is controlled to ensure that the technology or its products do not cause any harm to humans, animals or the environment as specified in the National System for the Safe Use of Modern Biotechnology managed and coordinated by the Department of Environment in the Office of the Vice-President.
It is a fact that the agricultural sector has a great contribution in producing important raw materials to meet the needs of industries as well as food security and good nutrition.
Despite that fact, the production of agricultural products in this country is facing various challenges, resulting in low and unproductive growth.
He mentions the challenges as increasing temperature, drought and increasing acidic land caused by climate change.
Also, he said the increase in diseases and pests in plants, shortage of good and proven types of seeds that give high yields and are resistant to the speed of climate change in the sense of resistance to diseases, pests and drought tolerance are part of the challenges.
Likewise, many farmers have continued to use seeds that are not resistance to diseases and pests, so they have to buy and use pesticides in large quantities in order to obtain a sufficient yield.
“This has increased production costs, reduced productivity and brought health consequences to the farmers. The safe use of modern biotechnology can provide us with solutions to the listed challenges,” he says.
He says that the recent evaluation of the use of this technology in the world shows that crops resulting from genetic engineering have increased income and improved the lives of small and large farmers, consumers as well as reducing poverty.
Dr Nyange continues to say that farming using crops based on modern technology has helped to reduce the use of pesticides, thus preserving the environment and reducing production costs.
Another advantage of having products resulting from modern biotechnology supplemented with vitamin A and iron supplements contribute to protecting and improving the health of farmers and consumers.
He mentions that in Africa, the three countries that have benefited from cultivation of improved crops using genetic engineering technology are South Africa who cultivate 2.9 million hectares of cotton, corn and soybeans, Burkina Faso with 0.3 million hectares of cotton and Sudan with 0.2 million hectares of cotton.
According to Dr Nyange, the use of this technology has contributed to great benefits for the farmer because after Sudan started using this technology, cotton yield increased from an average of 1,000 kg per hectare to 2,500 kg.
Recently, the neighbouring countries of Malawi, Kenya and Ethiopia have started the cultivation of cotton based on modern biotechnology (GMO). Statistics show that 80 per cent of all cotton grown in the world is GMO cotton with the ability to protect itself from bollworms and which has contributed significantly to increasing productivity and obtaining raw materials for industrial needs.
He explains that many African countries have made progress in the research of food and commercial crops, mentioning that Nigeria has done research on cassava, maize, cotton, Burkina Faso on cotton, Egypt on cotton crops, round potatoes, maize, wheat, watermelon and cucumbers.
Others are Sudan and Ethiopia in cotton, Kenya in cotton, maize, sweet potatoes, cassava and sorghum, Uganda on cotton, maize, cassava, bananas and rice, Malawi on bananas and cotton, Eswatini on cotton, Mozambique on maize, Zimbabwe on cotton and tobacco and South Africa on maize, potato, sugarcane and cotton.
In Tanzania, research was conducted on maize and cassava crops, however it was suspended in 2021.
Dr Nyange says this great response to invest in research and development to get new technology for improved crop seeds and its quality is a positive sign.
Only a few countries in Africa and other developing countries have been able to deliver these improved seed technologies with resistance to diseases, pests and drought to their farmers.
He explains that the main reason is lack of strategies to build awareness and understanding of the benefits of the safe use of products derived from modern biotechnology for the public and various stakeholders.
But, also activists who are opponents of the use have been spreading false theories that create fear to farmers and consumers.
“These theories have not been proven and have no scientific evidence. The surprising thing is that these opponents of technology are joined by all the citizens who mostly wear clothes imported from foreign countries like India, China, Pakistan and others that grow a lot of cotton resulting from modern biotechnology.
“In order for our country to benefit from the use of modern biotechnology in agriculture, it is better to go back and look at where we have stumbled, create an enabling environment and reinvest in research and development, build understanding and awareness and finally deliver new technology to our farmers,” he says.
Regarding the use of crops resulting from modern biotechnology or genetic engineering technology (GMO), the Minister of Agriculture, Hussein Bashe while at the Sokoine Agricultural University (SUA), explained that his ministry has agreed with SUA to conduct research on this technology because it is at the universities where all mistakes should be made and positive success seen.
“And I have instructed TARI that although we do not use GMO, we cannot refuse to know about GMO, biotechnology experts are being produced, so we have set aside two centres within the Ministry of Agriculture, TARI Mikocheni and Makutupora which will be used for biotechnology experiments in collaboration with Sokoine University.
“We must know about GMO, we don’t know if the world will force us to use it in the next 20 years, because our students study it, we cannot deny this science,” he says.
A Lecturer from Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA), Dr Philbert Ninyondi was quoted as saying that Tanzania has been making its decision whether to use or not to use GMO crops and products based on traditional information.
According to Dr Ninyondi, “The result of not doing research as a country is to find ourselves on the verge of making a decision using emotions. In order to determine the health, economic, social contributions and challenges of GMOs, we must conduct research.
“This will eliminate personal agendas and stories about GMOs, scientific research will show where we should go and how we should go.”
Ninyondi goes further by explaining that the science of genetic engineering clearly has no owner. But national security is put at a crossroads if you prevent research.
“The United States is increasing its investment in research. Asian countries like China are doing GMO research. Those who want GMOs, all need research. Due to these reasons, our nation needs research to end the GMO controversy,” he says.
The Director General of Tanzania Seed Quality Control Institute (TOSCI), Patrick Nguediagi congratulated Bashe for allowing research to continue so that the nation is not left behind and knows what is going on.
“Research will continue to be blocked, there will be days when GMO seeds will come in and we will not recognize them because we kept ourselves away from that science,” he says.
And Dr Daba Tadessa from Ethiopia says that genetic improvement is one of the biological methods that help living organisms or plant seeds to increase other characteristics that they are not born with, such as the ability to handle insects and diseases.
“Indeed, this technology has grown more in the world, including in Africa at the moment,” he says.
Dr Tadessa says there is nothing wrong with the technology, because even in medicine, the technology is used, which goes directly to the blood vessels or muscles.
“On food, this technology passes through normal channels and chemicals of food digestion and is absorbed as protein or food from the part where it occurred,” he says.
Increasing temperature, drought and increasing acidic land caused by climate change are some of the challenges farmers have to face.