COSTECH urges realism on agro-biotechnology for development

By Mohamed Kazingumbe (Friday, 15 March 2013)

Paricipants to the 7th Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Dar es Salaam last week digested the value of genetically modified organisms at the expense of traditional crops.

The Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) in collaboration with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) invited academicians, policy makers, established farmers, the media and members of the public to digest agro-biotech for growth of the sector in the country and Africa in general.

Guest speaker Dr Joseph Ndunguru, an experienced molecular plant virologist, remarked on the question of genetically modified crops which for years has been ignored and indeed in actual fact literally banned by the most African countries. It is now seen to have a place to improve national production, hence improving living standards of the people.

However, his introduction was discussed without reaching a final conclusion as some stakeholders exhibited fear of the trend towards modified crops. The various original or traditional crops would never come back into life.

The discussants went as far as wondering whether  multinational companies doing farming in the United States and elsewhere were producing for domestic food or rather focused on animal feeding.

Dr Ndunguru, a national medalist in science, an honour bestowed to him by President Jakaya Kikwete during the marking of 50 years of independence, is a principal investigator with a Rockefeller Foundation-funded project titled, “Cassava genetic transformation for the longevity of cassava virus resistance in Tanzania.”

The project seeks to diagnose, characterize, monitor and sustainably manage viruses affecting cassava productivity, he said, noting that the work has discovered the history of a distinct species renamed ‘genotype’ of the white fly, ‘bemisia tabaci.’ These flies carry the virus that causes two major pests destroying cassava harvests across the region, introducing the cassava mosaic and ‘brown streak’ viral diseases.

As the topic stimulated experts in the field, Senior Lecturer University of Dar es Salaam, College of Natural and Applied Science, Dr Mugassa Rubindamayugi, viewed the question of GMO as history, following acceptance of genetic modification by many countries globally.

But, drawing out important areas for observation, like considering conducted researches on the same issue, and to allow the production of GMO like seeds.

With bias to the molecular biology and biotechnology, Dr Mugassa, contributing to discussion on modern biotech in transformation of agricultural sector, says GMO has a casual effect in the economic transformation in developing countries.

“While it has become the subject of debate among academia and the general public, the potential contribution of application of modern biotech in agro production globally should enable Tanzanians to do something positive,” Dr Mugassa urged.

The topic raised a lot of questions as some wished that implementation should look into several divergent perspectives, including key proponents of agro-tech seen as the only viable solution to socio-economic problems. Critics of agro-biotech insist that the technology is to be treated with caution and suspicion.

Early on the acting Director General of COSTECH, Ms Flora Tibazarwa, whose permanent position is director for Life Sciences, stimulated the forum by encouraging proper interrogation pertaining to the issues, hence the topic.

Her fore remark was part of contributing to making advance digestions to experts to concentrate on research work so that scientists make more scientific inroads into the matter.

“Costech is the only national institute allowed to announce scientific results after thorough research, for consumption,” she stated, carrying the impression that people should rely on scientific results.

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