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[DAR ES SALAAM] Tanzania's agriculture minister has said that genetically modified (GM) tobacco is being grown in the country for research purposes. Yet, Tanzania's planned regulatory framework for GM crops has still to be debated by parliament.

Following a biotechnology workshop held in Dar es Salaam earlier this month, Charles Keenja told SciDev.Net that field trials of tobacco that has been genetically modified to be nicotine-free were underway in Moshi District in the Kilimanjaro region.

According to the minister, the GM tobacco has been growing for fewer than three months on a small farm in the area.

"We are seeing the possibilities of eradicating tobacco containing nicotine," said Keenja. "We have decided to produce GM tobacco that is free of nicotine … we target the future market [for nicotine-free tobacco]."

SciDev.Net has learnt that that in 2003, field trials of GM tobacco seed produced by US-based Vector Tobacco were conducted in Tanzania, although there is widespread belief that such experiments were stopped at the end of the year.

However the company declined to respond to repeated requests put to it this week to comment on the minister's statement that GM tobacco is once again under trial in Tanzania.

This is the first time a Tanzanian minister has admitted to the presence of GM crops in fields in the country, which has no law governing the planting of GM crops.

Asked about the implications of his statement with respect to this regulatory gap, Keenja said GM tobacco was only being produced "on a very small scale".

Keenja told participants in the biotechnology workshop that the government was likely to delay submitting to parliament draft legislation that would specify the conditions under which GM crops can be grown until next year.

He said that this was because 2005 is an election year in Tanzania, and that there would not be space on the legislative calendar to debate the government's GM bill.

"We are not likely to have a law in place before 2006," he said.

However he added that Tanzania could not afford to be left behind by others adopting the technology, adding that fears about GM crops in Europe would subside in time.

"To date, not a single study has proven GM foods to be harmful to human beings," said Keenja. "It is only unfounded fear."

However, Keenja also told SciDev.Net that the government has suspended plans, announced in February, to introduce GM cotton in the southern highlands (see GM crop tests get green light in Tanzania).

That announcement prompted protests from non-governmental organisations, led by Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM-Tanzania), a group that organised several workshops to raise public awareness of the plans.

According to PELUM-Tanzania, GM crops — whether cotton or tobacco — would harm the environment and human health, and make poor farmers dependent on costly GM seeds.

The organisation's advocacy officer, Donat Senzia, says GM crops could create 'super weeds', which later may be uncontrollable and disturb the natural vegetation.

Senzia says that Tanzania needs more than ten years to prepare for any GM product.

Vernon Gracen, a biotechnologist from Cornell University in the United States, said at the Dar es Salaam workshop: "Both proponents and opponents of GM crops must have the common goal of responsible use of biotechnology."

He also suggested the government and stakeholders need to engage in a transparent discussion of the issue.

Read more about gm crops in SciDev.Net's GM crops dossier.

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