Million Belay (PhD) is director of Melca-Mehiber, a local NGO engaged in the conservation of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge in Ethiopia. On top of that, he is also one of well-known anti-GMO activists in Ethiopia.
The debate on agricultural biotechnology in many African countries oscillates between two extreme views. On the one hand, there are the die-hard proponents of biotechnology who are impatient to have the technology adopted at all costs and present it as the magic bullet and panacea to the multitude of problems facing African countries. On the other, anti-biotechnology groups’ major concerns is human health and environmental degradation as reasons to stop the technology. Most of the time, the debate has international dimensions as the proponents are quick to point to the successes of the technology in the US while opponents look to Europe for an on-the-ground showcase. Last week, a draft amendment on the biosafety proclamation of Ethiopia was tabled before parliament. The draft seeks to ease the importation of the GMOs and GMO products for research purposes. Yonas Abiye of The Reporter sat down with the biodiversity activist, who in fact supports tightening the belt on importing GMOs. Excerpts:
The Reporter: What is your view on the piece of legislation that is seeking to amend the biosafety proclamation passed in 2001?
Million Belay (PhD): In the first place, Ethiopia had already enacted the Bio-safety law that permits the importation of GMO. The law laid down the mechanism whereby one can import GMO to Ethiopia. In fact, before the endorsement of that legislation (the existing proclamation), a lot more input and participation had been gathered by the relevant authorities, perhaps better than the newly proposed amendment. However, we had a lot of provisions that we wanted to be included in the existing proclamation. For example, we would have liked an inclusion of a legal provision that would ensure the right of a certain geographical areas to be deemed GMO-free. Similarly, we had the desire to see the nation remain on a moratorium for quite sometime until it builds its capacity that enables it to better manage the technology. We even requested further the suspension of GMO for sometime. We had no problem with the law, but we believed the law would not be an effective tool if the nation imports GMO without acquiring the necessary capacity to handle the technology. Unfortunately, the law had been passed despite all our objections. And, today, in the presence of a serious friction on GMOs and GMO products, proponents of this technology are coming again with a more organized and systematic approach and are proposing amendments to some of the provisions. As to our view, the proposed amendment would make importation a lot smoother. So, we take it as a very worrisome development. As part of the civil society, we view it with a great concern for our country’s safety, for the economy, security, biodiversity and the wellbeing of our fellow farmers and people.
What makes you think it is worrisome?
First, no law or no technology can exist in isolation. There are several contextual situations that should be taken into account like the international context. From the very beginning, when the Cartagena Protocol, which was implemented in 160 countries around the world, was first passed, it came with the core assumption that the technology has a serious flaw. So, the rationale of this law was the need to set the controlling mechanism for the use of this technology. When this protocol was accepted and signed by over 190 countries, the US was the first to decline and accept it as a Biosafety protocol. True to form, today, it is the US that is pushing many African nations to consider smoothening their laws on biosafety. It is intensifying its pressure to help its companies which are amassing huge profits from this sector. These companies seek to sell their seeds across the world. They also want to get more money from the royalty fees they charge on their seeds. So, we see the current amendment through this context.
What do you question most about the proposed amendment?
The objectives are far different from the existing ones. The existing laws state their objective to be controlling the importation and use of GMO in the country. In contradiction to that, the amendment takes controlling it as one issue but promoting modern biotechnology in the country is the main one. It looks to be a promotional piece of legislation. This is in contradiction to the spirit contained within the same law. By any means, one legislation can never be designed to control and promote at the same time. As such this would amount to altering the legislation’s internal content. The other concern is about what is proposed regarding ‘Contained Use’. It is about using the GMO for research in a confined area. I personally learnt from friends who face a big challenge even for teaching their students in universities about GMOs. They say that the law (the existing proclamation) prevents them from demonstrative teaching due to its strict provisions. According to existing law, before using the technology, whether in the format of Contained Use or in open environment, companies are required to present a guarantee document from their own concerned authorities that says the GMO product is safe for the environment. But, the companies resist to bring that letter arguing that they have no experience of producing such documents. They insist that they only control it by themselves without the help of their respective authority. The questions we are raising at this point are: first the issue of how much facility like laboratories we have here, the second is whether we have the capacity to control if this stuff suddenly goes out from the ‘Contained environment’, and the third one is the availability of proper facilities at customs points to inspect and store them while they are being imported through our borders. My additional question is if there is an assumption that we can undertake some research activities here to produce GMO seeds. I wonder how they could handle it. Simply, to produce and deliver one item of such seed to the market requires from USD 100,000 to 140,000. So, our research capacity and financial strength to create a particular species before the market is highly questionable. Expecting the financial requirement to be fulfilled by the companies which are supplying the products might be dangerous.
But the government says that it has both the facility and the capacity here at home?
What they are talking about is the laboratory that is situated in Holeta town. What about the regulatory body? The regulatory body itself needs a laboratory and facilities. The confusion here is that we are talking about promotion and safety controls. The promoters may claim that the country possesses the facility and the capacity to so. That is why our major concern is on Article 5 particularly.
It might be really a concern, but if the authority that implements the technology has the required facility and capacity, do you still think the concern will be there ?
For us, genetic engineering is a concern unless it is proved safe by more research bringing about consensus between pro-and anti-GMO. Since there is no international common agreement it keeps being a concern for us. Since it has the risk, we should put various mechanisms in place to avert it.
But there has not been any independent research or scientific evidence that actually proved the harming effect of GMO either. Hence, proponents argue the concern may well be theoretical. What do you say to them?
There are thousands of cases and research findings that have proven an existence of a risk. If we see one case, for instance, a material published on the journal of toxicology research indicated that in places where GMO is harvested, it has clearly witnessed a danger. We can mention the consequence on mothers whose fetus is affected. It’s also tested that it has effect on the health system of women. A lot of evidences are collected in Canada’s town of Quebec, for example. So, many studies have been undertaken. The claims of risks being theoretical is absolutely false; I do research as a scientist. Moreover, when the Cartage protocol was endorsed, there were so many scientists backing it. This protocol would have not been endorsed if the effect of GMO was not backed by scientists across the world.
The argument is much circulated on the technology itself. But, the technology is largely owned by Monsanto. Can we say that such an opinion is a result of lack of trust on Monsanto?
Mosanto is one biggest and most powerful companies in the world. It possesses the lion’s share of the GMO seeds which it exports throughout the world. It, in fact, controls the market along with other five companies. Now, the world focused on Monsanto as the company is trying to control the future food production of the world. It is this company that distributes most of the GMO seeds. Hence, most of these seeds are patented by Monsanto. That’s why the world is fatiguing over this company. So, it is no wonder that the whole world stands against Monsanto. Of course, Monsanto also possesses its own powerful propaganda machine.
So, is it about the company or the technology?
It’s about the technology. But the company is the owner of the technology. The movement is not about framing one company as a target.
Coming to local issues, the government is planning to boost cotton production to support the textile sector. So, it tends to encourage investors to engage in the sector and promote BT cotton. Due to low capacity, foreigner companies or their product might be promoted to come here. What do you think the effect of these companies would be?
As I said it earlier, it needs USD 100,000 to 140,000 to prepare an item of seed. As we see it here, it seems that it is the US government that is supporting the Ethiopian government regarding the technology. Most meetings, workshops and forums are held with the support of us agencies and institutions. Monsanto too is an American company. At the end of the day what would come to the country? That is the question. They are not philanthropists. Their objective is about meeting the interest of their shareholders. So it’s hard to expect them to be responsible for others.
In third world countries, including Ethiopia, food security is a critical concern along with the population pressure. There is a debate that food securing is difficult to achieve with the conventional farming. So biotechnology is proposed as the alternative. How do you balance these two issues, the risk and the advantage?
This is not something that you take for comparison. Biotechnology has a wide range, that goes as wide as brewing tella (local beer) to tissue culture or other sophisticated ones. There is also like a limited mark assisted seed breeding which is a bit different from convenience breeding systems. So, we have such kinds of alternatives if we are able to use them property. We have various biotechnologies that can be used by our scientists. I believe that Ethiopia can feed itself with the conventional method. We also have agro-ecological systems and others methods.
Most of you, the civil societies, have been doing a lot to persuade the government and you have had wide influence. But these days, commentators say that you are losing ground. How do you assess this?
As we can see from various sources like the wiki-leaks that there is pressure from other governments like the US, the cables (leaked) reveals the US intention to amend the existing law that it said was designed by the renowned scientist Tewold Gebreegziabher (PhD). There is research, for example, that shows genetically modified Banana. In the laboratory there is a strong attempt to feed Uganda GMO banana under the pretext of vitamin A and other food supplements. How did that happen? The research reveals a fabrication, a false story that claimed food deficiency. So, they are making a map to identify the relevant authority so that they could easily convince them. They also try to bribe scientists with various benefits including education and access to foreign education. In fact, I’m not saying there is similar experience here but they try to use the media as a propaganda tool for targeting forums and meetings. So, after some times the existing resistance is getting weaker and weaker. For us, as a civil society, we used to coordinate various public forums, training sessions and workshop to raise awareness. But these days we are unable to do it because of budgetary shortfalls. Since these events fall under administrative costs we cannot proceed like we used to do before. In addition, there is also a serious problem on this issue. I think it is the sum of all these factors that is making us lose ground.