Students line up for lunch at a school in Engaruka, Tanzania in early September.… (Sharon Schmickle/For The…)
ENGARUKA, Tanzania — When the bell rang at midday, students fetched tin bowls and lined up under trees in the schoolyard for scoops of corn and bean porridge.
Not one of them displayed the food fussiness often seen in American school lunch lines.
After the rainy seasons shortchanged this Maasai village in northern Tanzania, children here suffered too many days when there was no porridge — no food at all to eat in their mud and stick huts. Drought is to blame for a good share of their suffering.
Scientists are developing drought-tolerant corn, something that could ease hunger across Tanzania and sub-Saharan Africa. But because it is genetically modified, the corn cannot be planted here. Opponents of genetically modified crops have made a stand in Africa, and now villages such as Engaruka are squarely in the middle of a global ideological war over agricultural technology.
Since U.S. farmers first adopted GM crops in 1996, 17 million farmers in 29 countries have followed suit. Europe has rejected the crops, though, arguing that farmers would be exploited by large seed companies and that more research is needed into possible risks to the environment and food safety. And European activists have pressured Africa to do the same. Just four African countries — Sudan, Egypt, Burkina Faso and South Africa — have allowed them.
No one denies Africa’s hunger. World crop production has more than doubled in 50 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization. But Africa has lagged behind, achieving some gains while losing ground in places such as Engaruka where drought, plant diseases and other problems have knocked down yields and depleted the available food. Now that problem takes on new urgency with U.N. projections that Africa’s population will quadruple by the end of this century.
Still, the question of which approach is best for Africa remains hotly disputed. It tears at Tanzania, where 80 percent of the people live by subsistence agriculture.
African countries and research organizations, working together in the Water Efficient Maize for Africa project, have incorporated a gene from a common soil bacterium into corn, enabling plants to produce kernels even while short of water. The GM corn is expected to increase yields by 25 percent during moderate drought.
Tanzania is a member nation in the project, but regulations it adopted in 2009 have effectively blocked GM crops.
Under a “strict liability” rule, anyone associated with importing, moving, storing or using GM products is liable if someone makes a claim of harm, injury or loss caused by the products. Such a claim could reach beyond personal loss or injury to include damage to the environment and to biological diversity.
Under that policy, no research organization has dared to introduce GM crops into Tanzania’s fields.
At the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute in Dar es Salaam, plant virologist Joseph Ndunguru has genetically transformed cassava to resist viruses that are devastating the crop. Instead of starting field trials, Ndunguru is waiting for new regulations.
“There is a lot of fear,” he said.
As for water-efficient corn, Alois Kullaya said research has been on hold since 2009. He is Mikocheni’s principal agricultural research officer and the Tanzanian coordinator of the corn project. Tanzanian scientists have not been able to conduct field trials with the corn they have developed in laboratories.
The scientists have urged Tanzania’s government to shift to a “fault-based” regulatory approach under which a heavier burden of proof would fall on someone claiming harm or injury.
The influence of Europe
Pushing the government from the other side is the Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity, a coalition of environmental and organic-farming groups.
“Whoever introduces GMOs [genetically modified organisms] should be responsible for what happens on the ground,” said Abdallah Mkindi, alliance coordinator.
Mkindi said scientists serve as a front for multinational seed companies. If regulations were relaxed, he said, companies could hold small-scale farmers for ransom and food security would be threatened.
“Multinational companies are simply here to expand their business,” Mkindi said. “GMO is not a solution to famine.”
Some coalition members argue that Africa’s food sovereignty is at risk if its farmers accept seeds and plant cuttings created by large outside organizations. Some also say that a high-tech fix for Africa’s food insecurity is a false promise given the many other problems begging to be addressed — including poor access to land, water, credit, agricultural extension services, roads and markets.
Of 19 alliance members, 11 are European-based groups or have European affiliations. The expert authority the alliance cites for claims about GM crops is from London-based Earth Open Source.
Beyond grass-roots activism, Europeans have profoundly influenced African attitudes by rejecting GM crops, Ndunguru said.