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Science, World 19/04/2017

Tanzania is burning GM corn while people go hungry

The desiccated remains of a maize crop in Tanzania grown without the drought-resistance gene

Bad science costs lives

It's late afternoon in Makutupora and technicians wearing blue overalls pour sacks of maize onto a bonfire. They exchange a few wistful looks as the flames consume the grain. After all, this is good food, and the country is hungry. But government regulations are government regulations. 

The Makutupora agricultural research station, located a few miles from Tanzania’s dust-blown interior capital of Dodoma, is surrounded by misery. Drought has stalked the land for over a year. Farmers watch helplessly as their wizened crops of maize — a staple food for the area — shrivel under the relentless sun. Skinny children sit listlessly in the shade. 

Some local farmers are aware that the drought-tolerant crop that was just tested successfully in Makutupora could have helped feed their families. But it didn’t, because the maize carries the stigma of being a “GMO.” Although every scientific institution in the world agrees that genetically modified crops are as safe as any other crop, outdated “biosafety” regulations treat GMO crops as if they were little better than germ warfare. 

Researchers pour bags of GMO maize into the firepit

Biosafety also means that the whole “confined field trial” (CFT) had to be carried out behind high fences, with 24-hour security. Anyone visiting the site has to wear heavy blue overalls and walk through a pool of disinfectant, as I did recently with a video team from the Alliance for Science, a Cornell University-based NGO working to ensure biotech crop policies are science-based. It all seems calculated to insinuate that something dangerous is going on, an impression that unscrupulous activists are only too happy to play up. 

In Tanzania, the biosafety regulations mean that if a single cup of grain leaves the Makutupora site — even to feed a malnourished local child — over-zealous bureaucrats could shut down the entire program. A cautionary tale comes from Thailand, where family farmers started growing virus-resistant papaya in 2004, before it was officially permitted. Greenpeace found out and had the whole program shut down. 

Tanzanian scientists are determined not to let that happen here, so the Makutupora fire is set in a deep pit. Once the final embers have died, the pit is back-filled with soil to make sure not a single fragment of ash escapes. This is GMO ash, after all, so it might “contaminate” the environment. 

It is all completely absurd, but this is what happens when science is ignored. For conventional crop trials, local farmers can get involved in trying out the seeds for themselves. Anything GMO, however, has to be grown under strict protocols and endure years of complicated evaluations that make the whole process cost millions of dollars in every single country. 

Privately, even high-level government officials — some of whom turned out to watch the Makutupora bonfire — think that burning food is ridiculous. After all, one of them says off the record, South Africa has already commercialised the same drought-tolerance trait. And it's been in the US food chain for years. 

The drought-resistant corn was developed under a region-wide philanthropic project called Water Efficient Maize for Africa, (WEMA), which is trying to get climate change-resilient crops into the hands of smallholder farmers at minimal cost. But researchers had to use genetic modification to get the drought trait to work because the new gene comes from a soil bacterium. Hence the undesirable GMO tag. 

A well-filled corn cob labelled 'GMO' on the research site. This will later be burned. Photo by Hannah Smith Walker

Tanzania is desperate for drought-tolerant crops. The whole of East Africa is in drought, with several countries on the verge of famine. The United Nations says that over 40 per cent of Tanzanian children were already stunted due to inadequate food before the drought hit. According to the international Famine Early Warning System, the whole country is now classed at risk of “acute food insecurity.” At the last harvest, half of Tanzania’s maize crop was lost to drought.

But anti-GMO campaigners aren't worried about hunger. "Introduction of GM technology is in effect turning Tanzania’s 50 million plus people into guinea pigs, or perhaps even worse," one activist fumed this week in the country's leading national newspaper, Daily News. "Just how safe are GM foods for us and our children?" A lot safer than no food at all, I would contend. 

Ignoring the scientific consensus on GMO safety might be irritating in rich countries, but in sub-Saharan Africa anti-science attitudes can be a matter of life or death. During Zambia's 2002 famine, the government — influenced by well-known European environmental groups — declared that grain supplies containing GM maize were “poisonous". It kept desperately needed food aid locked in warehouses, even as its citizens starved outside

Today, anti-GMO groups are careful not to mention hunger or malnutrition. The Daily News writer insists on restoring "well established farming techniques which have been proven over centuries to be suitable to climate and culture." This traditionalism is coupled with Maoist-style ideological campaigns insisting on the primacy of — in the words of one recent NGO joint declaration — “Agroecology, Ecological Organic Agriculture and Food Sovereignty.” 

Set against this fundamentalist attitude, the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project is more than just a crop. It is a paradigm. Hybrid maize varieties carrying both the drought-tolerance trait and an insect resistance gene called Bt could yield double or even triple the amount of existing traditional varieties. For drought-stricken farmers, the additional harvest could help reduce endemic poverty. 

But real farmers' voices are hardly heard in the fractious debate. Juma Chizuwa, living just a few miles away from the Makutupora research site, on the outskirts of Veyula village, is one of those farmers. He is the father of five children: four boys and one girl. "Honestly, the climate is bad," he says when I ask how he is coping with the drought. "Times are tough truly. Only God will help us." 

Juma Chizuwa

Chizuwa has heard of the drought-resistant seeds being trialled behind the high fence nearby. "We're asking to get those seeds if possible," he tells me. "If he doesn't get help, I honestly can't tell how things will turn out," he adds. I don't have the heart to tell him that he won't get the drought-resistant seeds because they are going to be burned. Chizuwa might even be able to see the smoke from his ramshackle hut. 

On the other side of the village, but also suffering from drought, is maize farmer Regina Mwashilemo, proud owner of three emaciated cows and a dozen chickens. "The weather this year honestly is not like any other I have ever seen... this is the most severe," she complains. "It’s not rained since November-December. Now we’re in January, and still no rain."

Maize farmer Regina Mwashilemo surveys her dry land. Photo by Hannah Smith Walker

She has had to abandon maize and go back to growing the less valuable but hardier crop of sorghum. “Honestly, if I can get seeds for some good drought-resistant maize, I will go back to growing maize,” she says. “Growing maize has been too hard for me after the drought here in Dodoma. I really need these WEMA seeds, and if they can give me just enough to plant, I will grow maize again so it can sustain me better.” 

Drought-tolerant maize is not a silver bullet for Tanzania's small farmers. It won't solve poverty on its own. But it could help. However, anti-GMO campaigners have appealed directly to Tanzania's president to ban the field trials and stop drought-tolerant maize from ever being released. 

If they get their way, farmers like Juma and Mwashilemo will never be given a choice over what they grow. All the GM seeds will be burned, and drought will continue to take its toll. Meanwhile, it is not the anti-GMO campaigners whose bellies are empty.

Mark Lynas is an environmental writer and pro-science campaigner. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Cornell Alliance for Science at Cornell University, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. His books on the environment include High Tide, Six Degrees and The God Species. He has appeared frequently on international broadcast media, and written for the New York Times, the Guardian, Washington Post, Daily Nation (Kenya) and the Inquirer (Philippines), among many others.