Tanzania will ‘play a key role in GMO science despite the propaganda’

Richard Wetaya

December 15, 2022

Several African scientists who are knowledgeable about GMO science argue that contrary to ongoing anti-GMO propaganda the actual threat to Africa’s seed systems and agriculture is not GMOs but rather the fear of them.

Dr. Daniel Maeda, a Tanzanian cellular biologist and biotechnology expert, is one such scientist.

Dr. Maeda, who doubles as a lecturer at the University of Dar es Salaam, recently stated on the BBC’s Kiswahili Service that East Africa should harmonise GMO regulatory requirements in light of Kenya’s recent decision to lift a ban on GMOs and their importation.

Dr. Maeda believes that unfounded fears about GMOs and the use of genetic technologies should not stymie Africa’s agricultural development.

“The many unfounded and farfetched GMO fears in Africa are fueled by conspiracy theories from other parts of the world and some civil society organizations. Narratives such as GMOs cause cancer or may result in the extinction of indigenous seeds and plants are wrong and must be disabused.”

“These and other GMO misconceptions will exacerbate matters at a time when the continent needs to do more to get scientifically literate and to address food insecurity and the effects of climate change on its agriculture systems,” Dr Maeda, who has given TEDx lectures under the slogan “Fear is the enemy, not GMOs“, said.

He added that “regarding the safety of GMOs, numerous studies have been conducted, and there is currently no proof that GMOs cause cancer. The usage of GMOs will not ever lead to the extinction of indigenous food systems. Since many African nations currently import their seeds for food crops, it is possible that native seeds have already been lost.”

Dr Maeda emphasized that “with or without GMO seeds, every country requires a seed bank system to assist in the conservation of its indigenous seeds, plants, and animals which are constantly under threat from biotic and abiotic pressures, not to mention that farmers will always prefer high yielding seeds over indigenous seeds.”

Several anti-GMO civil society actors on the continent, including the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, have claimed that allowing agribusiness multinationals like Bayer, Syngenta, Yara International, and others to control and sell their patented GMO seeds to Africa’s smallholder farmers will result in the extinction of the ancient African indigenous practice of storing seeds from crop harvests.

Maeda, who was part of a three-person team appointed by the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) in 2020 to address the country’s Parliamentary Committee on Industry, Trade, and the Environment on the potential of biotechnology, expressed optimism that Tanzania would eventually reverse its ill-advised ban on GMO trials in light of emerging challenges such as post-harvest losses, climate change and water scarcity among others.

Last year, the Global Farmers Network, an organisation that amplifies farmers’ voices in promoting trade, technology, sustainable farming, economic growth, and food security, reported that without GMOs, Tanzania, a country where agriculture employs 75 percent of the population and which recently stepped up its vigilance after Kenya lifted the ban on GMOs, would continue to face food insecurity.

“I am confident the GMO ban will be reversed especially since organizations such as the Forum for Agriculture Biotechnology and the Biotech Society of Tanzania among others are earnestly engaging the Tanzanian Government. Even when the initial ban on GMO trials was decreed last year, ongoing trials were not suspended but were allowed to conclude.  Tanzania has a relatively robust regulatory framework in place for GMO work in agriculture. This helps instil confidence even among the most skeptical policymakers,” he said.

One of the crops whose development was halted by the Tanzanian government was cassava, yet it is very much a staple food in the country.

Dr. Maeda explained that “While cassava is resilient to abiotic stressors such as climate change, it still suffers from biotic stresses including  cassava viral diseases which can be eliminated by introducing disease-resistant varieties. Diseases such as mosaic and bacterial blight are rapidly spreading throughout Tanzania and the region necessitating immediate control measures. GMO cassava has the potential to play an important role in disease control, but only through research will we be able to fully realize this potential”.

On the future of stem cell technology and regenerative medicine in East Africa, Maeda believes that ongoing kidney and bone-marrow transplants at Tanzania’s Muhimbili National Hospital will provide many exciting opportunities.

“Strengthening capacity for bone marrow transplantation collaborations between researchers and clinicians in areas of hematopoietic stem cell biology could bring about novel developments in cell- and gene-therapy approaches to hematological diseases in Tanzania and beyond. Such collaborations will allow the adoption of innovations from other countries such as gene editing approaches to genetic diseases like sickle cell and beta-thalassemia,”  Dr. Maeda noted.

He predicted that “with the improvement of clinical technological know-how in kidney transplantation, there are opportunities for research groups working on bio-artificial organs, organoids, 3-D printed organs, and organs-on-a-chip systems research to establish themselves in Tanzania and play an important role in developing this field.”