Sustainable Energy

Tanzania’s First Trial of Genetically Modified Crops Has Begun

Many African countries have been reluctant to permit GM foods to be grown or imported, but opposition has softened amid a punishing drought.

Many African countries are prime candidates for the kinds of hardy crops made possible by genetic engineering, but few have embraced them wholeheartedly. This week, though, seeds were sown as part of Tanzania’s first-ever trial of genetically modified crops, providing a glimmer of hope for the technology’s prospects across the continent.

This year, unusually high temperatures and a stronger-than-usual El Niño have inflicted crippling droughts upon many parts of Africa, leading to severe crop shortages. Now more than ever, crops that can withstand water shortage would be a valuable resource across the continent to ensure that there’s enough to eat. Bill Gates has been vocal about his belief that GM crops could help end hunger in Africa.

But genetic engineering is as controversial in Africa as it is in the West. Early tests of a GM staple called matooke in Uganda were met with intense political lobbying; in 2012, Kenya banned the import of GM crops. South Africa is one of the few countries on the continent to openly adopt GM crops, but it has done so under strict limitations—in fact, it took this year’s droughts for the country to soften some of those rules.

Mohlakoana Molise, a farmer in Lesotho, sorts the yield from his maize crop. Like much of Africa, Lesotho has been hit hard in 2016 by a drought associated with a strong El Niño event.

This week, though, one of the more reluctant nations, Tanzania, finally decided to run a GM crop trial. “Until last year, influenced by European NGOs, the country maintained such strict laws against plant genetic engineering that scientists were unable to continue their work,” environmental activist Mark Lynas explained upon the announcement of the news. “That has now changed.”

The trial sets out to demonstrate whether or not a drought-tolerant GM white maize hybrid developed by the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project can be grown effectively in the country. The seeds developed by WEMA are royalty-free, which means they’re affordable for farmers who work relatively small plots of land.

If the initial experiments go well, an insect-resistant variety of maize may be tested next year.

Other countries also appear to be rethinking their approach to GM crops. Earlier this year, Zambia announced that it would embrace them, while Kenya is thought to be on the brink of reversing its ban on GM imports. Genetically modified foods may yet help feed Africa.

(Read more: Cornell Alliance for Science, “As Patents Expire, Farmers Plant Generic GMOs,” “Why We Will Need Genetically Modified Foods”)

Get stories like this before anyone else with First Look.

Subscribe today
Already a Premium subscriber? Log in.
Mohlakoana Molise, a farmer in Lesotho, sorts the yield from his maize crop. Like much of Africa, Lesotho has been hit hard in 2016 by a drought associated with a strong El Niño event.

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Sustainable Energy

Can we sustainably provide food, water, and energy to a growing population during a climate crisis?

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Insider Premium.
  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly magazine delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look: exclusive early access to important stories, before they’re available to anyone else

    Insider Conversations: listen in on in-depth calls between our editors and today’s thought leaders

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.