Ugandan media, scientists discuss opportunities and challenges for public awareness on GMOs

“Why does the public hear more of the myths and lies about genetically modified crops than the truth and facts that the scientists are so proud of?” asked Abalo Irene Otto, a freelance journalist with The Observer newspaper in Uganda. Read more

Forty years of data quantifies benefits of Bt corn adoption across multiple crops for the first time

University of Maryland researchers have pulled together forty years of data to quantify the effects of Bt field corn, a highly marketed and successful genetically engineered technology, in a novel and large-scale collaborative study. Other studies have demonstrated the benefits of Bt corn or cotton adoption on pest management for pests like the European corn borer or cotton bollworm in corn or cotton itself, but this is the first study to look at the effects on other offsite crops in North America. By tracking European corn borer populations, this study shows significant decreases in adult moth activity, recommended spraying regimens, and overall crop damage in vegetable crops such as sweet corn, peppers, and green beans. These benefits have never before been documented and showcase Bt crops as a powerful tool to reduce pest populations regionally thereby benefitting other crops in the agricultural landscape. Read more

Drought tolerant maize provides extra 9 months of food for farming families

Mexico City, Mexico (CIMMYT) — A new study from scientists with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) shows that drought tolerant (DT) maize varieties can provide farming families in Zimbabwe an extra 9 months of food at no additional cost. As climate change related weather events such as variable rainfall and drought continue to impact the southern African nation at an increasing rate, these varieties could provide a valuable safety net for farmers and consumers.

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South Africa: Science and Technology On Public Perceptions of Biotechnology in South Africa Survey

Half of South Africans are familiar with biotechnology

More than half of South Africa’s population believe that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are good for the economy and many are in favour of purchasing GM food.

This is in contained in the second survey on the Public Perceptions of Biotechnology in South Africa conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) which was released by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) in Cape Town today.

The survey showed that most South Africans are aware they are consuming genetically modified food; figures indicate that 48% were aware that they were eating GMOs while 49% believed it was safe to do so.

The first survey conducted in 2004 revealed that public familiarity with the term ‘biotechnology’, stood at only 21%, while and there was a 13% public awareness of GM consumption. The latest survey commissioned by the DST last year, showed that the figures have tripled, 53% and 48% respectively.

The HSRC said each of these changes signified a major shift in public awareness. The HSRC’s Dr Michael Gastrow said these changes could be due to increased levels of education, increased access to information, and greater prominence of biotechnology in the public discourse since the first survey in 2004.

Dr Gastrow said there had also been a major increase in attitudes that favour the purchasing of GM food. The proportion of the public that would purchase GM foods on basis of health considerations increased from 59% to 77%, on cost considerations increased from 51% to 73%, and on environmental considerations from 50% to 68%.

GMO forms of maize, soybean and cotton have been approved for commercial production in South Africa and these crops have become established in some parts of the country.

While the survey reveals a significant improvement of the public’s understanding and awareness of biotechnology, the levels of understanding remain broadly linked to living stand measures (LSM’s), demographics, and levels of education. In addition, biotechnology still remains a source of apparent public controversy, despite offering great potential for socio-economic development.

With the introduction of the GMOs Act in 1997, South Africa established a robust system to ensure any activities with GMOs are scientifically assessed for potential risks to human health and the environment.

Among the key aspects was the approval of the National Bio-economy Strategy in 2001 to ensure coordination of all stakeholders in this sector, and to align research, development and innovation with that of industry and government.

The Public Understanding of Biotechnology Programme established in 2003, sought to advance awareness and understanding but not specifically to promote biotechnology. To benchmark public understanding in this regard, the first survey was commissioned in line with Stats SA processes.

Releasing the latest survey, the DST’s Director-General, Dr Phil Mjwara said while there were significant improvements on the understanding of biotechnology, there was still a lot work to be done to bring the public on board.

Dr Mjwara said Government was committed to ensuring that GMOs are safe and people are not at risk. The DST DG added that the department was committed to ensuring that adequate information was made available to ensure an informed citizenry.

“We have thus tasked Biosafety South Africa to promote biosafety communication and awareness in South Africa – specifically to address the apparent gap in evidence behind the GMO controversies, and across the different public groupings within South Africa,” said the DG.

-A press released by the South African Government (Pretoria) published in  See article link here.

Facing Climate Change, Tanzania Can’t Afford to Fear GM Crops

LAST WEEK, TANZANIA planted its first ever genetically modified crop—a drought-resistant white corn hybrid. Government researchers will spend the next two to three years monitoring the plants for safety and effectiveness at growing in perilously dry conditions. It’s a notable milestone, given the nation’s longstanding lack of enthusiasm towards biotechnology. But as much as Tanzania’s turnaround is unique to its particular politics, history and culture, it’s also part of a quiet regulatory reversal in Africa. Other countries facing climate change-fueled food insecurity are beginning to bet on biotech.

Until last year, Tanzania was a very difficult place to even think about owning a genetically modified crop product, let alone growing one. Under a “strict liability” law adopted in 2009, anyone involved with importing, moving, storing or using GM products could be sued if someone else claimed the product caused them harm or loss. And that broad definition went beyond personal, it included environmental damage. Effectively, it was a regulatory blockade.

“Tanzania has been a nightmare, with that strict liability clause,” says microbiologist Jennifer Thompson, who is on the board of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. “Until last year we had never bothered to apply for field trials there because we knew it was such a lost cause.” AATF manages the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, which developed the GM maize (another word for corn) hybrid for Tanzania.

The repeal’s timing was no coincidence. In the last 18 months, unusually high temperatures and a brutal El Niño have punished many parts of Africa with drought. Ethiopia, 400 miles to the North of Tanzania is currently experiencing its worst water shortage in 30 years. South Africa just emerged from its worst drought since 1904. According to the World Health Organization, at least 30 million people in Southern and Eastern Africa will be affected by the water shortages this year.

It is in this context that nations like Tanzania are rethinking their GM food crops positions. Maize is the main food source for one out of every four Africans, and droughts hit it hard. While WEMA has also been developing and distributing non-GM drought-resistant hybrids, so far they have proved to be less efficient than the engineered version. At present only South Africa, Egypt, Burkina Faso and Sudan grow GM crops commercially, but that is likely to change in the next few years.

In January and March of this year (respectively), Malawi approved confined field trials for insect-resistant cowpea and a genetically modified banana being evaluated for resistance against the Bunchy Top Virus that decimated banana crops in the region last year. Uganda also approved field trials of a cooking banana variety engineered with Banana Bacterial Wilt resistance in March. Kenya granted a conditional approval for Bt maize performance trials in February.

“It’s really exciting, because until the crop is in the ground this is all just talk,” says Pam Ronald, a plant geneticist at UC Davis whose own work with flood-resistant rice resulted in a variety now being grown by 5 million farmers in India and Bangladesh. “Farming everywhere in the world is empirical. But you can’t see how useful something is until it’s actually in a field somewhere. And that takes leadership that is going to make decisions based on science and the needs of farmers rather than an abstract ideology imported in from developed countries.”

She’s talking about the EU, and its hard line stance against GM crops. That imported ideology gets promoted by opposition groups backed by European dollars; The Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity, the country’s loudest opponent of GMOs is comprised of 19 partner organizations, 11 with roots in Europe. Economics play a role, too. Trade laws allow EU countries to ban cultivation of GMO crops within their borders (would you want to grow something other people won’t eat?).

Also in less overt ways. When talented Tanzanians leave their homes to access higher education abroad, they leave a void in homegrown biotechnology. As of 2015, Tanzania’s top academic institution had fewer than 20 staff with backgrounds in the agricultural sciences and only one staff member in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (according to its website). In that research vacuum, multinational corporations come in as Plan B.

The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (a partner organization of the Tanzanian Alliance for Biodiversity) is opposed to the GM trials. “There are many other ways that Tanzania can produce its own food,” wrote Million Belay, an organizer for the Alliance. Data seems to prove otherwise: According to the FAO, 32 percent of Tanzanians are currently undernourished. And in a country where 80 percent of the population are subsistence farmers, that implies that millions of people are not able to grow enough food to feed themselves.

Philbert Nyinondi understands why so many Tanzanians might be distrustful of GM crops. As his country’s coordinator for the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology, he has been traveling Tanzania for the last few years (no easy feat—it’s twice as big as California!) talking to farmers and organizing workshops with local leaders and policy-makers about bringing the benefits of biotechnology to their farm fields. “With a controversial topic like GM, one will not simply trust a text message or a statement heard on the radio, especially when it goes against people he or she has been working with over the years who are against the technology,” he says. “We have the strongest base of GM opponents in the East Africa region. Unless you physically reach out to communities to present a case, you cannot push past challenges like the low levels of scientific understanding among the general public.”

Which is why he believes this new maize is so important. Yes, Monsanto donated the drought-tolerant genetic traits to the project. But with a royalty-free licensing agreement in place, the drought-resistant corn, like all WEMA maize hybrids, was developed specifically to suit local conditions and will be made available to smallholder farmers through local seed companies at an affordable price—pending successful trials. That’s as close to a homegrown GM crop as anything else that’s ready in Africa right now. And it’s this convergence of local GM solutions coming online at a time when climate change impacts are really starting to be felt on a daily basis that has tilted the balance of power away from the luxury of caution and toward the urgency of feeding not 9 billion people by 2050, but millions of people now.

And it’s also important to not trivialize the weight of history here; if you’d spent hundreds of years having white people showing up in your country telling you what gods to believe in, what clothes to wear, and yeah, what crops to plant (not to mention slavery, genocide, and warmongering), you’d be wary too.

-Written by Mega Molteni in Wired.  See article link here.