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[DODOMA] The Tanzanian parliament has blocked plans by the government to allow genetically modified (GM) seeds and crops to be imported, saying that they are not needed in the country and could damage its environment.

The decision was made during a debate on draft legislation earlier this month covering the import and distribution of GM seeds.

The move has put the government in a difficult position, since it has already announced that it is prepared to admit GM maize — provided it is milled before entering the country, and therefore cannot be planted to produce new crops.

However, the members of parliament pointed out there are currently no specific laws or regulations that control the use and distribution of GM seeds in Tanzania. As a result, they are seeking a complete ban on the import of all such seeds, claiming they are a potential threat to the environment.

The parliament's decision followed a report on the government's proposed legislation by a parliamentary committee, which had stated that "experience from India and America shows that GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are very harmful to natural vegetation".

The committee added that the lack of strong legislation controlling GM organisms meant that the parliament should intervene to block efforts by the government to allow the import of such products. It suggested that the government should revise its proposed legislation on seed quality to include specific measures to control the import and development of GM seeds and other organisms.

Tanzania is facing a shortage of 350,000 tonnes of food this fiscal year and has waived all import duties on food.

However one parliamentarian, Mohamed Abdallah Rished, welcomed the parliament’s decision to block the proposed legislation in its current form, claiming that GM seeds were harmful to the natural environment, and should therefore be avoided, whatever the cost.

Another member of parliament, Jumanne Maghembe, who is a professor of agriculture, also criticised the proposed legislation, claiming that it would create dependency on GM seeds and therefore threaten the self-sufficiency of developing countries

The minister for agriculture, Charles Keenja, told SciDev.Net that the government had "not yet" decided whether to proceed with its plans to allow the import of milled GM maize.

Meanwhile, the business community has complained that it has already made arrangements to import GM maize that has been milled abroad, in line with the government's earlier decision. If the government accepts the changes being proposed by parliament, business leaders say they will have to cancel such orders, leading to substantial financial losses.

In originally tabling the bill in parliament, Keenja said the proposed legislation was intended to control the quality of seeds being marketed in Tanzania. It will replace current legislation that has been in force for almost 30 years, and would, among other measures, set up a National Seed Committee to advise the minister on all aspects of seed quality.

Tanzania currently imports about 30,000 tonnes of seeds a year and produces only 2,000 tonnes, according to official figures. But it has no biosafety legislation covering the application of modern biotechnology and the use of GM products.

National biosafety guidelines and regulations are currently being drawn up by the government. Until these come into force, the government has been taking precautionary measures to ensure proper handling of imported seeds and to protect the country's biodiversity.

As a result, for example, farmers have been prohibited from planting maize seeds imported from abroad, and grain passing through the country on its way to neighbouring states has to be transported in leak-proof containers.

Such measures are in line with a resolution adopted recently by the SADC Summit in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, regarding the safe handling of GMO food products (see Southern African nations adopt common GM strategy).

Despite this, observers claim that GM maize and rice are already being planted illegally in various regions of Tanzania. They therefore suggest that, even if the government were to ban the import of GM seeds, the move is unlikely to have a significant impact, given the lack of effective monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.

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