Researchers urged to ensure improved seeds they produce reach farmers

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By Daniel Semberya

Africa is a drought-prone continent, making farming risky for millions of smallholder farmers who rely on rainfall to water their crops. Maize is the most widely grown staple crop in Africa – more than 300 million Africans depend on it as their main food source – and it is severely affected by frequent drought. Drought leads to crop failure, hunger, and poverty.

Climate change will only worsen the problem. Like drought, insects - particularly stem borers - present a challenge to smallholder farmers in Sub–Saharan Africa, as they have little to no resources to effectively manage them. This can have a negative impact on yields, particularly during times of drought.

At last Tanzanian scientists have been allowed to release confined field trials of transgenic, marking a new turn is the raging debate over adoption of biotechnology plants.

Speaking when officiating a three day Regional Review and Planning Meeting for the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project in Dar es Salaam yesterday the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries Dr Florence Turuka after long discussions with researchers and environmentalists on the pros and cons of Biotechnology on environment, animals, and its benefits to the nation, the government has now allowed researchers to carry on with the confined field trials of transgenic drought tolerant and stem borer resistant maize.

Dr Turuka said that he was aware of the challenges led to delay of the testing of genetically modified maize germplasm in confined field trials in Tanzania. In 2015 the Government amended the Environmental Management (Biosafety) Regulations of 2009 by removing strict liability for research to provide better environment for conducting transgenic research in the country.

“I am extremely delighted and encouraged to note that the WEMA project will implement, starting this year, the confined field trials of transgenic drought tolerant and stem borer resistant maize in order to get even more resilient maize varieties for our farmers,” he revealed.

He reiterated that the revised regulations are a first step towards a more fundamental reform of the regulatory framework, which will become more enabling over time. Therefore, the implementation of transgenic research in Tanzania will produce science-based evidence on the benefits of the technology.

This strategic step-wise approach will allow research output to influence policy and decision-making as the government embarks on further amendments to remove strict liability for commercialization in line with its National Biotechnology Policy (2010).

Meanwhile, Dr Turuka has called upon researchers in collaboration with seed companies to ensure the improved seeds they produce which are resistant to drought and insects, and give high yields are distributed to farmers, so that they can give them good income and eventually change their lives.

“I urged researchers to together with seed producing companies to establish a system that would ensure the improved seeds they research reach farmers timely,’ he urged.

He said the goal of the WEMA Project is to improve food security and rural livelihoods among African small scale maize producers through improved drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize varieties by using conventional breeding techniques and modern biotechnology tools; and to make the seed available to small scale farmers in sub-Saharan African countries royalty-free. “This is a very noble goal, because maize is one of the most important food security crops in most sub-Saharan African countries.”

According to him, in Tanzania, maize is cultivated on about 2-3 million hectares in all parts of the country. The average yields are relatively low, about 1.2-1.6 tonnes per hectare. Some of the major production constraints include incidence of biotic stresses such as pests and diseases, and abiotic stresses in particular declining soil fertility, use of unimproved seed, low utilisation of inputs including fertilizers and agro-chemicals and – as mentioned above -- incidences of drought.

In recent years drought has led to periodic food shortages leading to food insecurity and hunger in some African countries. In Tanzania the most affected regions during the 2014/15 season include Shinyanga, Singida, Dodoma, Arusha, Tabora, Kilimanjaro and the northern part of Iringa Region.

The WEMA Project therefore, came at a very opportune time because it complements and boosts our efforts of mitigating the effects of climate change through the development of maize varieties that can give higher and stable yields under drought stress conditions.

Dr Turuka further revealed that the WEMA project has released forty conventional drought tolerant maize hybrids in the participating countries. He was glad to note that six (6) of the released varieties come from Tanzania, and that five more varieties have been recommended for release this year. “I would like to urge the Project to speedup the process of deploying the seed of the released varieties to the farming communities so that the desired impact can be achieved,” he said.

He congratulate the WEMA Partnership for the good progress it has made in finding solution to the new disease, namely maize lethal necrosis (MLN), which is becoming one of the major threats to maize production in Tanzania and in some of our neighbouring countries. He also urged them to continue with the efforts of developing and deploying varieties that are resistant to this serious disease.

“On our part as government, we will put mechanism in place to ensure that seed is produced in disease-free areas, and that seed is not moved from disease-prone to disease-free areas within the country,” he promised.

The project has also made good progress in developing transgenic or genetically modified drought tolerant and stems borer resistant maize varieties in the Republic of South Africa, Kenya and Uganda. We commend the WEMA partnership for these great achievements.

Dr Turuka thanked Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Howard G. Buffett Foundation and USAID for their generous financial support to the Project through the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). “This support has significantly enhanced the technical, infrastructure and human resource capacity for maize improvement in Tanzania, and I believe, in the other participating countries as well,” he said.

He also thanked the collaborating partners, namely the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) of Uganda, the National Institute of Agricultural Research (IIAM) of Mozambique, the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) of South Africa, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and Monsanto.

The government of Tanzania is, and will continue to be committed to the successful implementation of this extremely important project at the highest level of regulatory compliance with the national biosafety requirements in order to ensure that the confined field trials are conducted in a safe manner, without compromising to human, animal and environmental safety.

The Project has raised the expectations of many maize growers in the country, who would want to have access to the products that are developed in as short time possible because of the devastating effects of drought, stem borer and maize lethal necrosis disease.

Drought tolerance has been recognised as one of the most important targets of crop improvement programmes, and biotechnology has been identified as a powerful tool to achieve significant drought tolerance by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

AATF is coordinating a public-private partnership called Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) to develop drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize using conventional breeding, marker-assisted breeding, and biotechnology, with a goal to make these varieties available royalty-free to smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa through African seed companies.

The benefits and safety of the maize varieties will be assessed by national authorities according to the regulatory requirements in the partner countries: Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.

The WEMA has been attended by the Executive Director, African Agricultural Technology Foundation, Heads of WEMA National Agricultural Research System Institutions, Representative from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT), Representative from Monsanto, Representative from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Representative from USAID among others.

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