Tanzania plants its first GMO research crop

By Joan Conrow

October 5, 2016

Tanzania planted its first genetically modified maize research trials today under an initiative that is building a new model for advancing agricultural innovation through public-private partnerships.

The confined field trial, a pre-cursor to commercialization, will demonstrate the effectiveness and safety of a drought-tolerant GM maize hybrid developed by the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project.

Some 300 million Africans depend on maize as their main food source, but the crop is frequently harmed by drought, leading to hunger, poverty and human suffering. WEMA, a pioneering initiative that pools NGO, corporate and philanthropic resources, seeks to reduce crop failure by developing conventional and GM maize hybrids for smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.

“It’s important that we develop drought-tolerant varieties to ensure food security,” said Dr. Kingstone Mashingaidze, a scientist with the National Agricultural Research Council of South Africa.

Under a royalty-free licensing agreement, seed companies in Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa and Uganda are already growing and selling drought-tolerant maize hybrids developed by WEMA to suit local conditions and branded as DroughtTEGO. Mozambique will introduce the TEGO brand seeds this year. The WEMA project has received commercial release approvals for more than 60 TEGO conventional hybrids across the five countries.

The TEGO hybrids caught on quickly as farmers growing the less-productive open-pollinated varieties saw their hybrid-cultivating neighbors reaping bigger harvests.

“I think the WEMA partnership is making a difference,” said Mark Edge, director of WEMA partnerships at Monsanto. “The TEGO hybrids’ improved performance provides a lot of promise and hope for smallholder farmers in Africa.”

The GM side has proven more challenging. Despite political constraints in Africa, WEMA moved forward with biotechnology because it offered the promise to add still greater drought tolerance to the already improved [conventional] hybrids, resulting in an even more substantial gain for drought tolerant maize, according to a case study authored by the WEMA partners. Scientifically, the optimal approach was to use both techniques together.

Seed companies in South Africa, which has a longer history with GM crops, were the first to take advantage of the royalty-free GM licensing agreement. They will begin selling royalty-free transgenic maize seeds with drought-tolerant and insect-resistant traits this year. Kenya is expected to follow suit in 2017.

Mozambique has approved field trials for drought-tolerant GM maize, which will begin either this planting season or next, pending issuance of a seed import permit.

Uganda has conducted numerous successful field trials, but since it lacks a national biosafety law, it has been unable to commercialize GM seeds for sale to farmers. Eventually, biotech investment may be at risk there because there is no commercial path forward, Edge said. “We may be getting close to that point. The horse has been led to water many times, but the horse is not drinking.”

That leaves Tanzania, which this week planted its first GM research crop — a drought-tolerant white maize. Pending the results, trials of an insect-resistant variety could begin next year.

“We have had successful meetings with local leaders, local government authorities, farmers and communities around the confined field trial (CFT) area,” said Philbert Nyinondi, coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) programming committee in Tanzania. “We must be transparent to maintain trust. We are informing them on the importance of the trial, and the process of bringing GM crops to commercialization.”

However, anti-GMO activists do not support this agricultural advancement in Tanzania and have urged the public to protest the government’s issuance of the CFT permit.

Though WEMA, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Howard G. Buffett Foundation and United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is providing a window of opportunity for the advancement of crop biotech in sub-Saharan Africa, that window will close eventually, Edge said.

“That’s the message the Africans need to hear,” he said. “They do not have unlimited time on this. No donor should have unlimited patience.”

A combination of altruism and business interests motivated Monsanto to participate in WEMA, which is led by the nonprofit African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). Other partners are the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) from the five participating sub-Saharan nations. AATF manages all the seeds.

In 2004-05, Monsanto offered to share its newly discovered drought-tolerant traits for humanitarian purposes. That proved a good match with the Gates foundation, whose officers had identified drought tolerance as one of the most important crop improvement goals for helping smallholder farmers in Africa.

WEMA was formed in 2008, introducing a new model for public-private partnerships (PPPs) in agriculture. Though the road has been rocky at times, the collaboration is providing tangible proof that public and private entities can work together for the public good.

“There needs to be a benefit for each member participating,” Edge said. “Otherwise, you get platitudes, but no real action. There is such a strong desire across businesses, NGOs, government and Africans themselves. They want to find ways to do things better.”

He thinks more PPPs are likely as corporations strive to be socially responsible, and foundations and NGOs focus on creating systems and businesses that can sustain themselves through profitability.

“I think it’s a really good thing, and I’m hoping the case study with WEMA will help people understand what you need to do,” Edge said. “It’s not about perfection; it’s about success. There is a way to accomplish our common goals.”