RECENTLY, the Ministry of State in the Vice-President’s Office (Environment) convened a meeting for stakeholders in the science community to deliberate on how crop genetic engineering can be used in the interest of agriculture and the local people in general.
At the meeting some stakeholders had concerns on whether there is conclusive research findings that show genetically engineered crops have no harm on human beings.
The same week, a renowned Harvard University scholar, Prof Calestous Juma visited East Africa and said biotechnology and genetic engineering have the potential to do for agriculture, what mobile technology has done for the communications sector in Africa.
Prof Juma advocated for the adoption of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), saying they would boost food and income security. He, however, cautioned that it would be detrimental to adopt GMOs without clear, flexible and supportive biotechnology regulations. Prof Juma has authored several books on Africa’s development, including The New Harvest, which is arguably today’s most authoritative scholarly work on agriculture in Africa.
In his book, he argued that African agriculture is currently at a crossroads, at which persistent food shortages are compounded by threats from climate change. But, as the book argues, Africa faces three major opportunities that can transform its agriculture into a force for economic growth: advances in science and technology; the creation of regional markets and the emergence of a new crop of entrepreneurial leaders dedicated to the continent’s economic improvement.
Filled with case studies from within Africa and success stories from developing nations around the world, The New Harvest outlines the policies and institutional changes necessary to promote agricultural innovation across the African continent. Incorporating research from academia, government, civil society and private sector, the book suggests multiple ways that individual African countries can work with others at the regional level to develop local knowledge and resources, harness technological innovation, encourage entrepreneurship, increase agricultural output, create markets and improve infrastructure.
He emphasised the role of technology in transforming livelihoods, insisting that if Africa didn’t embrace GMOs in agriculture, the problems like climate change, pests and diseases that have dogged the sector over the years would devour production to shocking levels. He decried the phenomenon of resisting new technologies, saying it won’t help Africa to develop. On the safety of GMOs, he compared the current debate to the rumours that were circulated during the early days of mobile technology that the phones would cause brain cancer.
He said instead of focusing on rumours that discredit GMOs, it is prudent for governments to empower institutions to effectively check the safety standards of each product introduced on the market. He said biotechnology had caused a 24 per cent increase in cotton yield per acre and a 50 per cent growth in cotton profit among US smallholder farmers between 2006 and 2008. It raised consumption expenditure by 18% during the period.
He cited another report which said GMO crops that are pest-resistant had suppressed pests even beyond gardens where they were planted to assist farmers who don’t grow GMOs. “Biotechnology and in particular GMOs are not per se more risky than conventional plant breeding,” he asserted, and explained that genetic engineering would make agriculture more attractive and reduce the number of youth running away from rural areas.
The scholar’s position brought into focus the importance of genetic engineering perhaps starting with non-food crops in Tanzania, including cotton. Locally, stakeholders have urged that the government should institute a policy that allows agricultural scientists to conduct research and trials on GMOs in different research centres. The Environmental Management Act does not allow the application of such research and that it should therefore be amended. For example, one of the crops whose future has elicited so much debate is cotton.
Questions have been asked as to whether Bt Cotton can address the challenges in the cotton sector. The Tanzanian cotton sector has undergone dramatic changes since liberalisation in 1994. Stimulated by high producer prices, it has held either its position as either the most or second most important export crop in Tanzania in recent years. An estimated 40 per cent of the entire Tanzanian population is believed to derive their livelihood either directly or indirectly from cotton, grown by as many as half a million of mostly smallholder farmers.
A recent World Bank publication remarks that the sector is unique in that it is marked with too much competition amongst buyers – resulting in higher producer prices yet lower qualities – compared to the other sub Saharan cotton economies. This increased competition– as a trade-off–also resulted in comparatively lower yields, as credit based input provisioning is challenging in an environment where an overcapacity in ginning fuels side-selling.
The earlier South African case is illustrative in that the Tanzanian supply chain put into place via contract farming could serve a similar fate of struggling with recovering the debt and providing subsidized inputs, although measures are developed by the TCB to combat these issues. In addition to low yields obtained in a rain-fed environment, farmers in the sector struggle with lack of access to credit and extension service.
Research in the cotton sector also has been limited with poor seed quality, although the new UK M08 variety – developed at the Ukiriguru Cotton Institute - is planned for release as early as 2013/14. Furthermore, the intense competition has resulted in a comparatively lower cotton quality, as buyers are more focused on securing their quantities for their orders. While the quality is improved by half the ginneries operating roller gins and the entire harvest being hand-picked, the sector continues to suffer from the collapse of the textile industry after liberalization.
On average, only around 20 percent of the ginned cotton is consumed by domestic textile industries. The other 80 per cent are exported, thus revealing a potential source of domestic value addition as an estimated 90 per cent of the profits are obtained abroad (TCB 2010). These challenges were recognised by the Tanzanian Cotton Board as outlined in its Cotton Board Strategy of 2011–2013.
Outside of its domestic domain, the cotton sector is plagued by a range of global structural issues. These include competition from synthetic fibres and a long term decline in terms-of-trade for agricultural commodities (that was reversed in the short-term during the commodity booms in the last few years).