[DAR ES SALAAM] Tanzania will this year begin its first field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops. The first plants to be tested will be cotton modified to resist attack by insect pests, including a caterpillar known as red bollworm that feeds on cotton and causes bollworm disease.
The plans were announced by Wilfred Ngirwa, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, at an international workshop on GM crops held in Arusha on 7 February.
"Tanzania cannot afford to be left behind by technologies that increase crop yields, reduce farm costs and increase profits," said Ngirwa.
The government-run trials — expected to begin before October — will be supervised by researchers from Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro, whose laboratory studies have shown that the GM cotton kills caterpillars feeding on it.
The research will be conducted in the Mbeya, Rukwa and Iringa regions of Tanzania's southern highlands, where cotton production was suspended in 1968 in an effort to stop the bollworm spreading to the rest of the country.
Since then, farmers in the region have largely grown sunflowers to sell to processors who extract oil from the plants. But the growers have complained that the industry offers little financial security due to the small local market for their crops.
According to Paul Ntwina, the member of parliament for Songwe constituency, that the introduction of GM cotton would be good news for farmers in southern Tanzania.
"I am glad we will be able to produce cotton," Ntwina told SciDev.Net. "Technology is likely to be our liberator".
Job Lukonge of the Tanzania Farmers Association told SciDev.Net it was good that the government had decided to start its GM trials with cotton instead of a food crop, as it would avoid the contentious issue of having GM products in the human food chain.
Lukonge said the association was glad that GM technology was within reach, but said Tanzania does not have the necessary skills to handle it if it proves to be harmful.
If successful, the GM cotton trials are likely to pave the way for wider use of GM crops in Tanzania.
Growing or germinating GM crops is currently illegal in Tanzania, but the government is keen to embrace the technology (see Tanzania looks abroad for GM advice). It has developed a policy paper on the legislative framework needed to govern GM production, which Ngirwa said will be presented to the National Assembly in April.
By starting its GM trials, Tanzania will become the seventh African country to do so, following Burkina Faso, Egypt, Kenya, South Africa, Tunisia and Zimbabwe. Of these, South Africa is the only country producing GM crops commercially.Read more about GM crops in SciDev.Net's GM crops dossier.