A heated public debate on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) ensued during a seminar organised by MVIWATA – a network of smallholder farmers – in Morogoro, Tanzania. The meeting took place on 12 May 2018 and was attended by more than a hundred people, including parliamentarians and high-level government officials. The event, which was intended only to raise public awareness about GM crops, saw tensions reaching fever pitched levels between those in favour of and those extremely wary of GM crops.

Tanzania is a key target country for the cultivation of GM crops, particularly by Monsanto and the Gates Foundation projects. Tanzanian scientists are vocal supporters of GMOs and do the lobby work for the biotech industry, often making outlandish promises about the miracle properties of GMO crops.

After decades of being closed to GMOs with its stringent and robust biosafety law, Tanzania finally bowed under pressure. In 2015 the government weakened its biosafety law and in 2016 it authorised field trials of Monsanto’s GM Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Maize variety MON 87460[1]. Then last December, the government authorised field trials of Monsanto’s double-stacked GM maize, which involved an obsolete GM trait that even South African farmers and government have rejected.

The public debate was marked by two powerful presentations. Dr Angelika Hilbeck, an independent biosafety scientist from the Institute of Integrative Biology (IBZ), showed how the promised miracles of GMOs failed to come to fruition over the last 20 years – an eye-opener to many present in the tense room. She was supported by a political food activist Dr Richard Mbunda, from the University of Dar es Salaam, who did a sterling job of debunking often flouted industry hype.

Pro-biotech local scientists, who had come only with scripted presentations in hand, were ill-equipped and unable to challenge the facts that Dr Hilbeck and Dr Mbunda presented.

However, in a twist of events, one local newspaper published inconsistent and false statements concerning Dr Hilbeck’s presentation. This brings into question the integrity of the media when it reported issues concerning GMOs in the country, raising the possibility that it has been compromised. A letter has since been issued concerning the inaccurate article.

Participants were particularly struck when they learnt that most countries in Europe have banned the cultivation of GMOs. In these regions, there is a groundswell of public and private opinion that industrial and GM-based agriculture poses huge environmental and human health risks. While dated throwaway technologies are being foisted on Africa, most of Europe is now transitioning out of their highly industrialised system of farming to agroecology. There is great need for unbiased public awareness of GMOs in Tanzania, in order that citizens can effectively make decisions on what kind of agrarian food system they want to have.

At the meeting, proponents of GMOs kept drumming the beat for the technology, claiming that it is inevitable, and with the current agricultural challenges, such as the fall armyworm, climate change and Maize Lethal Necrosis Disease, we as Africans have no choice but to accept GMOs. Furthermore, according to them, with the current development trajectory of Tanzania towards industrialisation, there is a need for higher production of food, to feed into factories.

However, these claims were strongly challenged by farmers who said that the lack of markets for their produce is their most pressing concern at the moment. Tension in the room reached its peak when Dr Mbunda spoke about the need for food sovereignty and against corporate control of African seed systems. In his riveting and hard-hitting presentation, he pointed to the WEMA project as an example of increased corporate control and loss of farmer sovereignty.

According to recent agricultural budget speeches, Tanzania is self-sufficient in food by over 100%, so why the need for GMOs in the country? Besides, with the enormous funding [2] directed to the WEMA project, Dr Mbunda questioned whether the project was only about benefitting a few elite people, such as the implementers of the GM project, under the guise of philanthropy. This sparked further debate among participants on the fate of other research institutions in the country, including those such as the Agricultural Seed Agency (ASA) and the Tanzania Official Seed Certification Institute (TOSCI), who receive less funding to support public interest programmes and are directed mainly to maximise production and release of best locally adapted corporate seed varieties. Participants wanted to know why these public research institutions are not given funding priority for public research and breeding, while most funding goes to a few chosen research institutions that are promoting GMOs. They also asked why Tanzania is dependent on external seed companies, such as Monsanto, whereas the country has the ability to produce its own seed. Many viewed this as an imminent threat to state and food sovereignty in the country.

Based on the claims that the WEMA project will supposedly solve climate change issues in water stressed countries, African civil society organisations have been scathing about it. They contend that the project is intent on dumping an old and discarded Monsanto GM trait, MON 810, and that it is unable to deliver a GM drought tolerant maize variety: claims of drought tolerance are bogus and merely a ruse to grab elite African germplasm and push Monsanto’s Bt maize on the continent.[3]

As the meeting came to a close, it was clear that all stakeholders need to be taken into account before commercial approvals are given.

[1] The MON 87460 is a ‘drought tolerant’ trait donated by Monsanto into the WEMA project contains the bacterial cold-shock gene, cspB, derived from the common soil Bacillus subtilis. According to Monsanto, “the cspB gene helps to preserve cellular functions during certain stresses” and “reduces yield loss, primarily through increasing kernel numbers per ear”.

[2] About US $47 million was directed to the WEMA project for the first phase, US $ 39.1 million coming from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) and remainder from the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, and US$ 48.9 million for the second phase from the BMGF including an additional US $7.5 million from USAID during 2013 and 2014.

[3] WEMA-Discussion-Doc-web.pdf

Pics courtesy of MVIWATA
Pics courtesy of MVIWATA
Pics courtesy of MVIWATA