June 17, 2009
by Venter Mwongera,
One more step towards bringing the debate on agricultural
biotechnology closer to the people who stand to gain or lose
most from biotechnology was taken recently with the launch of
the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) Tanzania
Tanzania, like many African countries, faces a decreasing level
of agricultural productivity caused by frequent droughts, poor
crop varieties and livestock breeds, diseases and a low
technological base. At the heart of agricultural biotechnology
is the mission to change the situation of the almost 800 million
people who go to bed daily on an empty stomach, most of whom
come from developing countries in Africa.
The most aggressive debates on agricultural technology have
however been in rich countries, with protagonists hardly able to
conceptualize the plight of the nearly 40,000 people who die
every day due to hunger-related causes.
The World Bank estimates that by 2020, the number of
undernourished could surpass one billion. Speaking during the
launch of OFAB Tanzania, the Director General of Tanzania's
Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) Dr Hassan
Mshinda said that a lack of proper information on the
opportunities offered by biotechnology has resulted in a slow
adoption of various agro-technologies that can help the country
feed its citizens.
He said that developing countries have generally been eclipsed
in the dialogue on food biotechnology crops, yet they comprise
more than 80 percent of the global population, and its people
form the majority of those who suffer from hunger-related deaths
OFAB will hold monthly luncheon meetings, in which stakeholders
will share knowledge and experiences; and explore new avenues of
bringing the benefits of biotechnology to the agricultural
sector in Tanzania.
"There are specific conditions and different levels of awareness
in different countries, therefore the need for localizing debate
on crop biotechnology", said Dr. Mshinda during the launch held
in May. The Chief Guest during the launch was the Minister of
Agriculture Food Security and Cooperatives Stephen Wasira.
The Minister said that public understanding of biotechnology has
great implication in successful application of biotechnology in
research for development and on the acceptance of products
developed from that research
"Stakeholders including policymakers and decision-makers,
research managers and scientists in many developing countries
including Tanzania, have low awareness about biotechnology, its
impacts, as well as its potential for socio economic
development", said the Minister.
OFAB is supported by the African Agricultural Technology
Foundation (AATF) which also supports the Forum Chapters in
Kenya , Uganda and Nigeria .
The Forum aims to facilitate relevant discussion on agricultural
technology as it relates to the needs of poor countries.
According to Dr. Daniel Mataruka Executive Director of AATF,
there is growing development in biotechnology worldwide, with
the number of farmers increasing to 13 million farmers planting
125 million hectares of biotech crops.
"About 90 percent of these are poor small-holder farmers, an
indicator that agricultural biotechnology are an indicator that
this is the technology of the future", says Dr. Mataruka.
AATF is a not-for-profit foundation that promotes public/private
partnerships to deliver agricultural technologies to poor
smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.
One of the major gripes by opponents of biotechnology,
especially genetic engineering, is that wealthy companies stand
to benefit most where the technologies are adopted.
Tanzania is one of the countries where AATF is coordinating the
Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project.
WEMA seeks to develop drought-tolerant maize for Africa using
conventional breeding, marker-assisted breeding, and
The long-term goal is to make drought-tolerant maize varieties
available royalty-free for the drought-tolerant trait to
small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.
WEMA is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and led
in Tanzania by COSTECH. Other countries in the project are Kenya
, Uganda , Mozambique and South Africa .
The Nairobi-based non-profit organization African Agricultural
Technology Foundation (AATF) is coordinating the project. Other
institutions involved include the International Maize and Wheat
Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and Monsanto.
In this project, AATF, CIMMYT, and Monsanto have signed a legal
agreement so that any drought-tolerant maize variety developed
through this project will be licensed to AATF, which will
identify local seed multipliers to make the seed available to
smallholder African farmers at the regular price of maize seed
without royalty for the drought tolerant-trait.
Farmers will also have the right to keep their harvested grain
for replanting if they so wish. The new maize varieties will be
developed using a combination of conventional plant breeding and
modern biotechnology or genetic modification. In the WEMA
project, Monsanto will help accelerate the breeding process
through what is known as marker-assisted breeding, which allows
researchers to find and track genetic material associated with
drought tolerance and focus on developing those lines.
CIMMYT, long recognized for expertise in conventional breeding
and testing for drought tolerance, will provide high-yielding
maize varieties that are adapted to African conditions.