Last week, Tanzania planted its first ever genetically modified crop–a drought-resistant white corn hybrid. Government researchers will spend the next two to three years monitoring the plants for safety and effectiveness at growing in perilously dry conditions. It’s a notable milestone, given the nation’s longstanding lack of enthusiasm towards biotechnology. But as much as Tanzania’s turnaround is unique to its particular politics, history and culture, it’s also part of a quiet regulatory reversal in Africa. Other countries facing climate change-fueled food insecurity are beginning to bet on biotech.
Until last year, Tanzania was a very difficult place to even think about owning a genetically modified crop product, let alone growing one. Under a “strict liability” law adopted in 2009, anyone involved with importing, moving, storing or using GM products could be sued if someone else claimed the product caused them harm or loss. And that broad definition went beyond personal, it included environmental damage. Effectively, it was a regulatory blockade.
“Tanzania has been a nightmare, with that strict liability clause,” says microbiologist Jennifer Thompson, who is on the board of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. “Until last year we had never bothered to apply for field trials there because we knew it was such a lost cause.” AATF manages the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, which developed the GM maize (another word for corn) hybrid for Tanzania.
The repeal’s timing was no coincidence. In the last 18 months, unusually high temperatures and a brutal El Nino have punished many parts of Africa with drought. Ethiopia, 400 miles to the North of Tanzania is currently experiencing its worst water shortage in 30 years. South Africa just emerged from its worst drought since 1904. According to the World Health Organization, at least 30 million people in Southern and Eastern Africa will be affected by the water shortages this year.
It is in this context that nations like Tanzania are rethinking their GM food crops positions. Maize is the main food source for one out of every four Africans, and droughts hit it hard. While WEMA has also been developing and distributing non-GM drought-resistant hybrids, so far they have proved to be less efficient than the engineered version. At present only South Africa, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Sudan grow GM crops commercially, but that is likely to change in the next few years.
In January and March of this year (respectively), Malawi approved confined field trials for insect-resistant cowpea and a genetically modified banana being evaluated for resistance against the Bunchy Top Virus that decimated banana crops in the region last year. Uganda also approved field trials of a cooking banana variety engineered with Banana Bacterial Wilt resistance in March. Kenya granted a conditional approval for Bt maize performance trials in February.
“It’s really exciting, because until the crop is in the ground this is all just talk,” says Pam Ronald, a plant geneticist at UC Davis whose own work with flood-resistant rice resulted in a variety now being grown by 5 million farmers in India and Bangladesh. “Farming everywhere in the world is empirical. But you can’t see how useful something is until it’s actually in a field somewhere. And that takes leadership that is going to make decisions based on science and the needs of farmers rather than an abstract ideology imported in from developed countries.”
She’s talking about the EU, and its hard line stance against GM crops. That imported ideology gets promoted by opposition groups backed by European dollars; The Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity, the country’s loudest opponent of GMOs is comprised of 19 partner organizations, 11 with roots in Europe. Economics play a role, too. Trade laws allow EU countries to ban cultivation of GMO crops within their borders (would you want to grow something other people won’t eat?).
Also in less overt ways. When talented Tanzanians leave their homes to access higher education abroad, they leave a void in homegrown biotechnology. As of 2015, Tanzania’s top academic institution had fewer than 20 staff with backgrounds in the agricultural sciences and only one staff member in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (according to its website). In that research vacuum, multinational corporations come in as Plan B.
The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (a partner organization of the Tanzanian Alliance for Biodiversity) is opposed to the GM trials. “There are many other ways that Tanzania can produce its own food,” wrote Million Belay, an organizer for the Alliance. Data seems to prove otherwise: According to the FAO, 32 percent of Tanzanians are currently undernourished. And in a country where 80 percent of the population are subsistence farmers, that implies that millions of people are not able to grow enough food to feed themselves.
Philbert Nyinondi understands why so many Tanzanians might be distrustful of GM crops. As his country’s coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, he has been traveling Tanzania for the last few years (no easy feat–it’s twice as big as California!) talking to farmers and organizing workshops with local leaders and policy-makers about bringing the benefits of biotechnology to their farm fields. “With a controversial topic like GM, one will not simply trust a text message or a statement heard on the radio, especially when it goes against people he or she has been working with over the years who are against the technology,” he says. “We have the strongest base of GM opponents in the East Africa region. Unless you physically reach out to communities to present a case, you cannot push past challenges like the low levels of scientific understanding among the general public.”
Which is why he believes this new maize is so important. Yes, Monsanto donated the drought-tolerant genetic traits to the project. But with a royalty-free licensing agreement in place, the drought-resistant corn, like all WEMA maize hybrids, was developed specifically to suit local conditions and will be made available to smallholder farmers through local seed companies at an affordable price–pending successful trials. That’s as close to a homegrown GM crop as anything else that’s ready in Africa right now. And it’s this convergence of local GM solutions coming online at a time when climate change impacts are really starting to be felt on a daily basis that has tilted the balance of power away from the luxury of caution and toward the urgency of feeding not 9 billion people by 2050, but millions of people now.
And it’s also important to not trivialize the weight of history here; if you’d spent hundreds of years having white people showing up in your country telling you what gods to believe in, what clothes to wear, and yeah, what crops to plant (not to mention slavery, genocide, and warmongering), you’d be wary too.