Smoking out nicotine-free tobacco in Tanzania

Tanzania’s minister of agriculture has said that genetically modified (GM), nicotine-free tobacco is being grown in the country for research purposes. Yet, Tanzania’s planned regulatory framework for genetically modified crops has still to be debated by Parliament.

Following a biotechnology workshop held in Dar es Salaam earlier this month, Charles Keenja told SciDev.Net that field trials of tobacco that has been genetically modified to be nicotine-free are under way in Moshi district in the Kilimanjaro region.

According to the minister, the genetically modified tobacco has been growing for fewer than three months on a small farm in the area.

“We are seeing the possibilities of eradicating tobacco containing nicotine,” said Keenja. “We have decided to produce GM tobacco that is free of nicotine … we target the future market.”

SciDev.Net has learnt that that in 2003, field trials of GM tobacco seed produced by United States-based Vector Tobacco were conducted in Tanzania, although there is widespread belief that such experiments were stopped at the end of the year.

However, the company declined to respond to repeated requests put to it this week to comment on the minister’s statement that GM tobacco is once again under trial in Tanzania.

This is the first time a Tanzanian minister has admitted to the presence of GM crops in fields in the country, which has no law governing the planting of GM crops.

Asked about the implications of his statement with respect to this regulatory gap, Keenja said GM tobacco is only being produced “on a very small scale”.

Keenja told participants in the biotechnology workshop that the government is likely to delay until next year submitting to Parliament draft legislation that would specify the conditions under which GM crops can be grown.

He said that this is because 2005 is an election year in Tanzania, and that there will not be space on the legislative calendar to debate the government’s GM Bill.

“We are not likely to have a law in place before 2006,” he said.

However he added that Tanzania cannot afford to be left behind by others adopting the technology, adding that fears about GM crops in Europe will subside in time.

“To date, not a single study has proven GM foods to be harmful to human beings,” said Keenja. “It is only unfounded fear.”

However, Keenja also said the government has suspended plans, announced in February, to introduce GM cotton in the southern highlands.

That announcement prompted protests from NGOs, led by Participatory Ecological Land Use Management Tanzania (Pelum-Tanzania), a group that organised several workshops to raise public awareness of the plans.

According to Pelum-Tanzania, GM crops—whether cotton or tobacco—will potentially harm the environment and human health, and make poor farmers dependent on costly GM seeds.

The organisation’s advocacy officer, Donat Senzia, claims GM crops could create “super weeds” that later may be uncontrollable and disturb the natural vegetation.

Senzia says Tanzania needs more than 10 years to prepare for any GM product.

Vernon Gracen, a biotechnologist from Cornell University in the United States, said at the Dar es Salaam workshop: “Both proponents and opponents of GM crops must have the common goal of responsible use of biotechnology.”

He also suggested the government and stakeholders need to engage in a transparent discussion of the issue.—SciDev.Net

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