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[CAIRO] Egypt is to provide training and other forms of technical assistance to Tanzania to help it develop the capacity to produce genetically modified (GM) crops. The offer was made during talks between the countries on the sensitive issue of access to water from the River Nile.

"We are ready to support any of your projects," said Egypt's deputy prime minister and minister for agriculture, Youssef Wally, told a visiting Tanzanian delegation last week.

He was responding to a request for agricultural and veterinary training from Tanzania's minister for water and livestock, Edward Lowassa, who led the delegation.

But Wally warned that generating the capacity to develop GM crops is an expensive process, and that Tanzania was unlikely to be able to afford to embrace the technology on its own. He therefore suggested that it should seek further assistance from China and India, both of which have the considerable technological experience with GM technology.

Wally told the Tanzanian delegation that implementation of the technology was inevitable. Egypt is already carrying out tests of GM strains of cotton, sugarcane and other crops, although it has yet to grow any of them commercially.

"We must not be too sensitive about this issue," Wally said. "It is like unnecessary fear of globalisation, computer technology or the internet. Remember that fifty per cent of maize grown in United States is produced through biotech."

The Tanzanian delegation included nine members of parliament and eight journalists, and was visiting Egypt primarily for a week-long official dialogue on issues surrounding the use of water from the River Nile.

Tanzania is refusing to recognise the 1929 Nile River Agreement between Great Britain and Egypt, which bans any country from using water from the Nile for irrigation without Egypt's permission. The treaty also restricts East African countries from using waters from Lake Victoria — hundreds of miles from the Egyptian border.

Egypt's deputy prime minister declined to comment on whether the offer of aid for GM technology was related to his country's efforts to persuade Tanzania to take a more flexible stance on the treaty. Nor did its minister for water and irrigation, Mohamed Abu Zeid, who said that there are issues other than the Nile on which the two countries can collaborate.

Meanwhile, views remain divided among ordinary Tanzanian farmers about GM issues. Some — as elsewhere in East Africa — are openly hostile.

"GM involves large scale farming accompanied with highly modernized technology, hence it is likely to kill the livelihood of peasantry farming in Tanzania, " says Said Hassan, a farmer from the suburbs of Dar es Salaam.

But others say they lack sufficient information to make an informed judgement.

"I have read about GM products, through newspapers, but I can't tell exactly what it is," says Majura Ndege, a farmer in Coast Region, Tanzania. "What I can say we depend much on the government's decision to lead us, if wrong decision is done, then we will be in trouble, if the decision is right, then we reap the profit."

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