Biosafety Bill to Open Door to GMOs in Ethiopia

Ethiopia, a country still relying on just 20pc of its potential arable lands to grow food, is opting for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with a legal amendment likely to be approved by the House sometime during this fiscal year.

Genetically modified organisms are created by the scientific intervention of man, mixing the genes of different organisms to get certain qualities in one. For example, Bt cotton, a popular GMO crop, has the genes of a bacteria added to it so that the cotton plant can produce toxins that kill pests. As with cotton, the same technology has been employed in different food crops as well. There is also the Golden Rice, which has been engineered to be rich in vitamin A.

GMOs are shrouded in controversy, however, with those in favour arguing that they could transform the food security of the world, while those against speak of the risks to the environment and biodiversity, as well as the exploitation of farmers who will be dependent on expensive seeds from companies such as Monsanto.

Ethiopia’s bio-safety proclamation of 2009 did not close the door on GMOs, but made entry very difficult. It required that the government of a GMO’s country of origin was responsible for any damage caused in Ethiopia – a guarantee that no government wanted to give, say sources. These sources declined to say how or why, but there has been a strong pressure from government to amend the law fast.

The push to change Ethiopia’s stringent proclamation and to ease the environment for access to the controversial GMOs came from the highest level in government, according to sources. Government agricultural researchers, who found it hard to partner with “sister institutions from foreign countries” under the existing law, also see the amendment as something that needed to happen.

The existing law had very strict rules for GMO transportation and storage in Ethiopia. Someone involved in the transport, storage or processing of GMOs must have adequate insurance to cover any possible harm caused by GMOs and can only transport the GMOs after special training by the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and with a license for drivers or pilots. After release to the environment and commercialisation, one has to monitor and present an annual report to the EPA for (Directive No.3/2009) at least 150 years for GM trees, 30-150 years for GM perennial crops and 30 years for annual crops. A researcher who recommends the use of a GMO could be imprisoned for up to 15 years if it is imported for research and study, and commercial release causes any problem to the environment or the general public. In addition, the proclamation treats low risk activities, like contained use for research and teaching, in the same way as commercial planting/environmental release. The jurisdiction to administer issues in relation to GMOs is also given to the EPA, now a Ministry, under the law.

This law did not allow Ethiopian researchers to collaborate with researchers in other countries on GMOS, said Endale Gebre (PhD), Director of Biotechnology Research at the Ethiopian Institution of Agricultural Research (EIAR).

The amendment states that any person can engage in transactions destined for the release of GMOs to the environment by obtaining an Advanced Informed Agreement from the MoFEP. Any applicant can engage in any contained use transaction with a special permit from the Ministry. This bill, which was submitted to Parliament’s Forest and Natural Resource Standing Committee at the end of July 2014, was drafted by the Ministry of Forest & Environmental Protection (MoFEP), Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), Ethiopian Institution of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and the Ministry of Science & Technology.

Allowing the use of GMOs is not a choice, but a necessity, argues Endale, stating that Ethiopia’s population is projected to reach 140 million in 2025, although he adds that only 20pc of arable land is cultivated in Ethiopia. The current law disappointed researchers, foreign exporters, investors and NGOs, says Endale.

“Enter the age of BT in Ethiopia,” says Maryam Mayet, who reviewed the amendment on behalf of a local NGO, Melka Ethiopia.

GMOs are the only solutions to mitigate food insecurity, which might occur as the population grows, says Abay Yimer (PhD), a researcher at the Institution for Science & Sustainable Development (ISSD). Abay downplays the risks, saying that 400 European researchers have undertaken studies at a cost of 200 million dollars over the past 10 years, proving that risks from GMOs were no different from the risks posed by the use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers.

“Currently, there is shortage of cotton production in Ethiopia and Ethiopian imports cotton from Tanzania and China every year,” says Endale. “Applying biotechnology in cotton production would minimise cost and save foreign currency.”

And the most common technology in cotton, as well as other food crops, is adding some genes of a bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, to produce the so-called BT crops, with the ability to produce the bacteria’s natural toxin. In cotton, the pest that is the target of the toxin is the bollworm.

It was in 2009/2010 that the Ethiopian Institution of Agricultural Research stared constructing a Central Biotech Laboratory in Holetta town, complete with a molecular lab, plant biotech, livestock biotech, microbial biotech and genetic engineering facilities. All laboratories are now working except the Genetic Engineering, which has not been able to do so because of the stringent laws. The research institute, a government body, built the genetic engineering lab, complete with most facilities except a green house which will be completed in six month, despite the government’s own law making it nearly impossible to dabble in the practice through its stringent requirements, which put the researchers at risk of harsh punishment.

Research conducted in the other labs included such crops as cassava, sweet potato, cowpea, groundnut, banana, rice, sorghum, wheat, plantain and millet, as well as fruits and vegetables, such as citrus fruit, grape, mango, plum, cucumber, tomato, eggplant and peppers. Cash crops, like sugarcane, cacao and coffee, are also included. The institutes are conducting research on GMO enset (false banana) – a source of the staple food, kocho, for many in Ethiopia’s south – in Nairobi, Kenya, in collaboration with other researchers at the International Institution of Tropical Agriculture Laboratory (IITA).

When Ethiopia drafted its stringent bio-safety law in 2009, the Ethiopian consumer association was one of those involved in the process. However, during the production of the new draft, the association was excluded, despite efforts to be part of the process, said Gebremedhin Birega, the Assocation’s director.

Consumers should be aware of what they consume and have the right to get organic and GMO free products, he says, adding that Ethiopia is making the amendment in the interest of other countries, such as the United States, China and India, who are home to the world’s largest GMO company, Monsanto, and the largest producers of BT cotton.

More in line with that argument is the interpretation of the amendment given by Maryam Mayet, who believes that the government had some foreign exporters to Ethiopia in mind when drafting the new amendment. The amendment has inserted a definition for foreign exporters, and she thinks that “a special definition for such an actor must denote some intention that such an actor – a foreign exporter – will play a key role in this shift towards an openness to GM experimentation” in Ethiopia.

Her argument is enhanced by another element in the amendment which says that the objective of the amendment is to “enhance access to and transfer technologies, including modern biotechnology, that serve for conservation and the sustainable use of biological diversity.”

“And we know that the main arguments of industry as to the benefits of GMOs on the environment especially is insect resistant GM crops. Enter the age of Bt cotton for Ethiopia.” She said

The amendment includes several articles where the definitions and requirements, as well as risks and accountabilities, have been made more lax and where licenses to operate will be easier to obtain in Ethiopia. A possible interpretation of the phrase “into the environment” could mean “cultivation”, which would eliminate the need for an Advanced Informed Agreement for “food, aid food, greenhouse experiments, aqua-culture, animal feed or other inputs for animals, and medicines for humans or animals”, according to Maryam.

“The overriding imperative of these amendments are to signify a major shift in Ethiopia’s policy on GMOs, from a precautionary approach to an openness to, at the very least, experimentation in contained use conditions,” she said.

The United States government, through the US Agency for International development (USAID), is already working to build “the leadership capacity of the Ministry of Agriculture and Regional Bureaus” to harness “biotechnology for agriculture in collaboration with the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences, the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research, the USDA Mission in Ethiopia and the Institute for Science & Sustainable development”, according to a press communiqué from USAID.

Attending the meeting, which was held at the Hilton Hotel on August 21 and 22, 2014, was Diran Makinde (Prof), Director of the AU-NEPAD African Bio-safety Network of Experts (ABNE), who spoke of the success of BT cotton farming in several countries, including the neighbouring Sudan. He argued that national regulations could be harmonised with international regulations for bio-safety, adding that the full range of potential risks needed to be assessed and managed.

Ethiopia’s state minister for Science & Technology, Mohammed Ahmed, told the meeting of his government’s recognition of the role of science and technology, and that “biotechnology alone cannot solve the Ethiopian agricultural challenges.Public policy should appeal more to pragmatism and less to ideology when seeking solutions to Ethiopian agricultural challenges”.

The Ministry of Agriculture believes that “Biotechnology should be a big project, in order to improve the economic growth of the country” and that it “will be a solution for low and insufficient agricultural productivity and also for economic growth”, according to Aster Stifanos, an advisor at the Ministry, who spoke on behalf of minister Teferea Derebew.

The Ministry of Forest & Environmental Protection (MoFEP) is expected to defend the amendment before Parliament sometime in October.

It was in 2009/2010 that the Ethiopian Institution of Agricultural Research stared constructing a Central Biotech Laboratory in Holetta town, (above) complete with a molecular lab, plant biotech, livestock biotech, microbial biotech and genetic engineering facilities.

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