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Transgenic rice once again proposed as solution to bacterial blight outbreaks, this time in Africa



Scientists with an international rice initiative have been raising the alarm about a strain of bacterial blight causing outbreaks in rice fields in East Africa, and they say the patented transgenic varieties they have developed are the solution.

The scientists are with the Healthy Crops Project, a non-profit consortium funded by the Gates Foundation that brings together US and German universities, the French national research institute (IRD), the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and others. In a scientific article published in June 2023, the team claims to have identified an outbreak of a Chinese variant of bacterial blight in Tanzania, which was previously unknown on the continent, and then to have employed gene-editing techniques to confer broad resistance to bacterial blight in rice grown in Africa.

The scientists plan to first introduce their transgenic rice in Kenya, where recent regulations allow for the introduction of gene-edited crops. They have already crossed their resistant line with a variety called Komboka, which was developed by IRRI and the Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation. While team leader Wolf Frommer told GRAIN they have “no interest in making profits from small scale producers”, he acknowledged that there is a patent on their gene-edited rice lines. He also said outbreaks of the Chinese bacterial blight strain have now spread to Kenya and Madagascar.

This is not the first time that IRRI and its partners have proposed GM rice as a solution to bacterial blight. Twenty years ago, farmer and consumer groups in Asia protested against the introduction of a rice known as “BB rice”— IRRI’s first transgenic rice to be field tested at its research centre in the Philippines. The Healthy Crops gene-edited rice varieties would be the first transgenic lines to be commercialised in Africa, if the project moves forward.

Groups in Asia that were opposed to IRRI’s “BB rice” argued that bacterial blight outbreaks are a product of IRRI’s green revolution model. The disease only began to be a major problem when IRRI’s semi-dwarf varieties were planted over large areas, replacing diverse local varieties with vast, uniform monocultures. The uniformity and reliance on huge amounts of chemical fertilisers created the ideal breeding grounds for bacterial blight and other diseases. IRRI’s response, beyond the promotion of chemical pesticides, was to try and integrate resistant genes from farmer varieties into its varieties, but this single gene resistance (or even multiple gene resistance) was inevitably overcome by the disease, leading to an endless race to try and identify and integrate new genes, and an escalation in pesticide use. Those opposing BB rice argued that the GMO rice would also not provide durable resistance, and that the only effective solution was to bring back diversity in the fields by restoring farmer seed systems and by moving away from chemical fertilisers and pesticides to practices that keep disease pressures down. IRRI never did manage to gain approval for the release of “BB rice” in Asia.

The situation is similar in Tanzania and Kenya. For decades now, farmers have resisted constant efforts by IRRI and other agencies to get them to abandon their farmer varieties and switch to the so-called high-yielding varieties (HYVs), including the Komboka variety of rice that the Healthy Crops team is now gene-editing. Farmer seeds still account for the vast majority of rice grown in Tanzania, one of the only countries in Africa that is self-sufficient in rice. This push for HYVs has been especially heavy in the “epicentre” of the recent bacterial blight outbreak identified by the Healthy Crops team: the Dakawa irrigation scheme in Tanzania’s fertile Morogoro Region.

It is noteworthy that the outbreak appears to have first affected fields planted to a variety called Saro 5, which has been promoted by numerous donors including the World Bank, USAID, AGRA and the Gates Foundation, despite its requirement for high levels of chemical fertilisers. For several years, the Norwegian fertiliser company Yara heavily promoted Saro 5, in combination with its fertilisers, under the Southern Agriculture Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT) programme. Saro 5 seeds were given out to farmers for free and were multiplied at the Chollima Rice Institute in Dakawa and distributed to farmers in other parts of the country. These different agencies and companies have thus spread a variety of rice highly susceptible to a new strain of bacterial blight across many farms in Tanzania, creating the conditions for the disease to amplify and spread.

Several rice farmers in Dakawa contacted by Tanzania’s national farmers’ organisation MVIWATA confirmed that the disease is present in their fields. They said that the government has been promoting Saro 5 to deal with the disease, but that this has failed dramatically, since Saro 5 is highly susceptible. “Saro 5 is the type of seed that is mostly affected,” says Saumini Hamisi, a rice farmer at Dakawa.

The farmers also said that the national research agency and the extension agents in the area have been telling farmers to use various pesticides against the disease, which has done nothing to help either.

Some speculate that this new strain of bacterial blight came to Dakawa via the Chinese province of Yunnan, since this strain of the disease is only found there. They say that infected material was likely brought over by the Chongqing Zhongyi Seed Company, which took over the Chinese Agro-technology Demonstration Centre built in Dakawa in 2009 with cooperation funds from China. Like the other foreign funded programmes at Dakawa, the Chinese initiative aimed to displace local varieties, in this case with Chongqing Zhongyi’s patented hybrid varieties. The Chinese seed company has not commented on these speculations, and did not respond to GRAIN’s inquiries either. The possibility raises serious concerns, given that Chinese seed companies are engaged in hybrid rice programmes in many other countries across Africa and the world.

But whether or not the Chinese seed company is the source, the disease is now spreading without it, as the Chinese project shut down last year. The question now is how to deal with the outbreak.

In Tanzania and other rice growing regions of the world, farmers have long managed bacterial blight and other diseases. Farmers in the Philippines with the farmer-scientist network MASIPAG, for instance, do regularly select for disease resistance within their farmer varieties of rice, but their main focus is not on breeding for resistance but in using farming practices that negate the factors that favour pest or disease population build-up and outbreaks. According to MASIPAG scientist and founding member, Dr. Chito Medina, this includes planting at least three different rice varieties on each farm “so that the differential resistance of each variety prevents the development and outbreak of any biotype or any continuous increase of population of any biotype or kind of pest or pathogen” (a technique that is also used to control rice diseases in Yunnan). They also deploy certain water management techniques and avoid the use of chemical fertilisers, especially nitrogen fertilisers, which increases the reproductive rate of insects and pathogens, including bacterial blight. Medina says that, because of this approach, “there have been no reports among MASIPAG farmers of any outbreaks or recurrent pest or disease problems for a long time”, despite the presence of many strains of bacterial blight across the country.

The local varieties favoured by farmers in East Africa may be susceptible to the bacterial blight strains now circulating in the region. But this does not have to lead to major crop losses. Rather than use the outbreak as another excuse to destroy farmer seed systems, efforts must focus on helping farmers to build up resistance within their local varieties through selection and seed sharing, and to utilise farming practices that can control the disease. It is bad enough that a foreign-funded programme brought a disease outbreak; it will be much worse if this paves the way for another foreign-funded programme to displace local varieties with patented, transgenic rice seeds.

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The Appellate East African Court of Justice sets timelines for hearing an appeal against the construction of the EACOP.



By Witness Radio team.

The Appellate Division of the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) has instructed the four East African civil society organizations (CSOs), which lodged an appeal challenging the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project, to submit their written arguments by March 22, 2024. The appeal follows the dismissal of their case in 2023.

The appeal was heard by the following judges: Justice Nestor Kayobera, the President of the EACJ; Justice Anita Mugeni, the Vice President of the EACJ; Justice Kathurina M’Inoti; Justice Cheborion Barishaki; and Justice Omar Othman Makungu.

The organizations were represented by Counsels Justin Semuyaba, David Kabanda, John Baptist Okurut, and Veronica Nakityo, while the respondents were represented by Counsels Hangi M. Chang’a, Mark Mulwambo, and Stanley Kalokole from the Tanzanian team, as well as Counsels George Kalemera, Charity Nabasa, and Mark Muwonge from the Ugandan team. The EAC Secretary General was represented by Dr. Anthony Kafumbe, Counsel for the EAC.

The organizations, which include the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO)-Uganda, Center for Food and Adequate Living Rights (CEFROHT)-Uganda, Natural Justice (NJ)-Kenya, and Centre for Strategic Litigation (CSL)-Tanzania, filed a court case against the EACOP at the EACJ in November 2020.
In November 2020, the East African organizations asked the EACJ to issue temporary and permanent injunctions stopping the development of the EACOP.

The organizations argued that the EACOP violates key East African and international treaties and laws including the East African Community (EAC) Treaty, Protocol for Sustainable Development of the Lake Victoria basin, Convention on Biological Diversity, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Others include the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights as well as the African Convention on Conservation of Natural Resources among others.

However, on 29th of November, 2023, the EACJ dismissed the case relying on the preliminary objection raised by the Tanzanian and Ugandan governments regarding the timeframe within which the petition was filed at the EACJ. The EACJ ruled that the applicants filed the petition out of time, thus saying that the petitioners should have filed the petition as early as 2017 instead of 2020. The same court further said it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case.

The aforementioned organizations appealed against the Court ruling, and subsequently, it was heard on Tuesday, February 20, 2024, by the appellate division of the EACJ. The petitioners were directed to submit their written submissions by March 22, 2024.

The court also asked the governments of Uganda and Tanzania as well as the Secretary General of the EAC, (respondents) to file their counterarguments by April 22, 2024.

Further, the court ordered the appellants to file rejoinders to the counterarguments from Uganda and Tanzania and the EAC Secretary General by May 6, 2024.

Mr. Dickens Kamugisha, representing some of the appellant organizations, expressed satisfaction with steps taken by the Court. He emphasized the reliance of communities and East Africans on their natural and other resources for livelihoods, stressing the need to challenge projects like the EACOP that pose threats to these resources.

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Appellate Division of the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) to hear an Appeal filed by CSOs which seeks to reinstate a petition against the construction of the EACOP project tomorrow.



By Witness Radio team.

In a stirring development for environmental and human rights advocacy in East Africa, the Appellate Division of the East African Court of Justice (EACJ) is set to hear an appeal that four East African civil society organizations (CSOs) filed to re-instate the petition challenging the construction of East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) project.

The organizations spearheading this appeal include the Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO) from Uganda, the Center for Food and Adequate Living Rights (CEFROHT) also from Uganda, Natural Justice (NJ) based in Kenya, and the Centre for Strategic Litigation (CSL) from Tanzania.

This appeal comes in response to a ruling handed down in November 2023 by the Court of First Instance at the EACJ, which dismissed the case on ground that it was filed out of time.

The pipeline, spanning 1443 kilometers from Uganda to Tanzania, has been met with fierce opposition from many groups and environmental activists all over the world, who argue that it violates key East African and international treaties, as well as laws safeguarding human rights, environmental conservation, biodiversity, and the protection of Lake Victoria.

According to activists, the EACOP project is traversing through sensitive ecosystems, including protected areas and internationally significant wetlands, posing threats to biodiversity and ecosystems that local communities depend on for their sustenance posing grave environmental risks.

Furthermore, the project also termed as a curse by the majority of the would-be beneficiaries due to displacement of thousands of individuals from their ancestral lands, and human rights violations/abuses.

Despite the setback of the initial dismissal, the four organizations pressed forward their pursuit of justice.

In their appeal, groups contend that the Court of First Instance erred in its ruling, and want the Appellate Division to reinstate their case.

Mr. Dickens Kamugisha, the CEO of AFIEGO, expressed that they remain resolute in their pursuit of justice through the East African Court of Justice and other courts.

He further mentions that millions of East Africans have high hopes in the regional court to protect their socio-economic and environmental rights and help them continue advancing their aspirations for climate change mitigation and clean energy.

Mr. Kamugisha added that they maintained hope that the court would prioritize the rights of East Africans over the profit-seeking endeavors of large corporations, even if it came at the expense of people.

According to the Executive Director of Natural Justice, Ms. Farida Aliwa, the EACOP and related projects have already led to serious human rights abuses, including evictions, assaults and environmental destruction

“In the interests of justice, we believe that this case needs to be heard at the East African Court of Justice, as a positive outcome will be good for the East African people and planet. The Court has the power to affirm that the governments, investors, and companies violate both national and international laws and that the EACOP project must be stopped. We trust that the East African Court of Justice will see this, and decide to hear the merits of this case.” She revealed.

The case will be heard tomorrow 9:00 East Africa Standard Time at the Court of Appeal of the East African Court of Justice.

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PFZW scraps funding from Total and others for failure to transition into a cleaner energy mix.



By Witness Radio team.

In a significant move towards aligning its investments with environmental goals, Pensioenfonds Zorg en Welzijn (PFZW) has announced its decision to disinvest from fossil fuel giants such as Shell and Total.

This decision comes after two years of intensive engagement with fossil fuel companies, during which PFZW sought to encourage the development of climate transition plans in line with the Paris Climate Agreement.

PFZW is the pension fund for the care and welfare sector based in the Netherlands. PFZW invests the contributions paid by employers and employees to achieve a high, stable, and responsible return over the long term at an acceptable level of risk. The fund invests globally in the investment categories of variable-yield securities and fixed-income securities. The pension fund had a total of € 217 billion of assets under management at the end of 2022.

According to PFZW, 310 oil and gas companies failed to demonstrate a clear transition to a cleaner energy mix.

Some of the big oil and gas companies that PFZW parted ways with are Total, Shell, and BP among others. These major corporations have frequently faced criticism for investing in fossil fuel projects.

For example, Total, among other projects putting the World climate at risk, is advocating for the construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) and Tilenga projects in western Uganda. Despite, environmental experts warning of potential environmental damage, Total has persisted in heavily funding these projects.

PFZW’s disinvestment strategy is part of its broader commitment to sustainability and responsible investing. The PFZW fund has sold its stakes in 310 oil and gas companies, totaling 2.8 billion euros, for failure to demonstrate a clear transition to cleaner energy sources.

During this period, dialogue with oil and gas companies was significantly intensified to encourage them to produce verifiable transition plans that support the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Joanne Kellermann, chair of the board of PFZW said that “the intensive shareholder dialogue over the past two years with the oil and gas sector on climate has made it clear to us that most fossil fuel companies are not prepared to adapt their business models to ‘Paris’. While the largest companies in this sector do invest in sustainable forms of energy, the switch from fossil to low carbon is not nearly fast enough. Incidentally, this reflects the slow pace we see globally in the transition to renewable energy.”

According to PFZW, seven listed oil and gas companies with a compelling climate transition strategy will remain part of the portfolio. This contributes to the goal of investing more in companies that play a positive role in the global energy transition.

Despite parting ways with numerous fossil fuel companies, PFZW will continue to invest in seven oil and gas companies that have demonstrated a commitment to transitioning towards renewable energy sources. These companies, including Cosan S.A., Galp Energia, and Neste Oyj, are regarded as frontrunners in the energy sector due to their efforts to reduce carbon emissions and invest in low-carbon technologies.

“The seven companies we will continue to invest in are the only ones that show a switch is possible. At the same time, it is disappointing that there are only seven. We encourage the biggest players in the oil and gas sector to also accelerate the switch to a cleaner energy mix.” She revealed.

Furthermore, to significantly increase its investments in companies focused on improving the climate and energy transition, allocating two billion euros over the next two years to companies with measurable impacts on climate and the energy transition reflecting PFZW’s dedication to achieving a climate-neutral investment portfolio by 2050, with interim goals such as a 50% absolute carbon reduction by 2030 for equities, liquid credit, and real estate.

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