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Series 1: Cultivating genetically modified organisms in Ethiopia

In this Letterbox series, Hiwote Bekele and Tesfaye Shiferaw Sida (PhD) debate the Ethiopian government's approach to regulating the cultivation of genetically modified organisms. Hiwote and Tesfaye will be exchanging further letters on this topic: leave your comments at the bottom of the page to help steer the discussion.

Hiwote Bekele

Hiwote Bekele

Hiwote Bekele is an Environmental Health Expert and Educator, someone who is deeply passionate about addressing health issues through creating awareness and empowering others about various environmental exposures. Hiwote earned her Master of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Minnesota and her Bachelors in Biology and Peace and Conflict Studies from the College of Saint Benedict. Hiwote is committed to increasing health literacy and addressing environmental injustices by writing various articles and making information accessible to her community in her native language, Amharic.

Tesfaye Shiferaw Sida

Tesfaye Shiferaw Sida

Tesfaye Shiferaw Sida (PhD) is a multi-disciplinary researcher, educator and R&D practitioner concentrating on production ecology and resource conservation. He currently holds an Associate Scientist position at International Maize & Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT). He runs various projects that facilitate the delivery of agronomy-at-scale solutions, institutionalise digital decision support systems, and design demand-driven R&D innovations in agronomy. He is passionate for data-driven decisions and aspires to link hands-on, on-farm and practical experiences to the emerging big data and digital capabilities that assist smallholder farmers benefit from the ‘digital revolution’. Tesfaye holds a PhD from Wageningen University in Sustainable Intensification of Smallholder Systems of Sub-Sharan Africa.

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Hiwote Bekele

Dear Tesfaye,

As you know, Ethiopia revised its decades-long anti-GMO law last year, and approved trials for commercialised cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) as a way to combat food insecurity. A report from the USDA stated that drought tolerant and pest resistant WEMA-TELA Maize and Enset or False Banana will be cultivated. Animal genetic engineering is in the early stages, but will also be rolled out in Ethiopia sometime in future. While the rollout of GMOs in Ethiopia seems like a convincing solution to address food insecurity, it may have detrimental long-term health, social and economic impacts.

As a concerned Ethiopian citizen and an expert in the field of environmental health, I strongly oppose the Ethiopian government’s decision to adopt GMOs at this point in time. There are four different issues that concern me about the commercial cultivation of GMOs in Ethiopia: long term effects on human health and the environment; the lack of awareness of the general public about GMOs; negative economic effects on small-scale Ethiopian farmers; and the issue of sovereignty.

Almost two decades have passed since the first GMO food was developed, but research on the long-term health effects of consuming GMO foods has been inconclusive. This is partly since much of the research conducted on the pro-GMO side is funded by corporations such as Bayer-Monsanto, which supply the majority of GMO seeds across the globe. Many of the GM crops/foods are genetically modified to be resistant to pesticides such as Roundup. Glyphosate, an active ingredient in Roundup, is classified as a carcinogen (causing cancer) and genotoxin (causing damage to DNA) by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) (for links to cancer, see here and here). Furthermore, glyphosate plays a major role in the rapid decline of bee colonies. Glyphosate pesticides disrupt growth in honey bees by targeting their gut microbes and making them vulnerable to opportunistic parasites. Therefore, disrupting the pollination process poses a threat to global food security, as agricultural production depends heavily on pollinators such as bees. In addition, introducing GM crops to a country like Ethiopia with rich biodiversity can threaten the long-term existence of diverse plant species that are native to the land and that have cultural significance to many people in the country.

Aside from the health and environmental effects mentioned above, the lack of awareness of the general public about what GMOs are and the significant changes that they will bring about to the food system in Ethiopia is quite alarming. The approval of these GM crops was done very quietly and without the dedicated intellectuals who brought it to light, it would have been left under the rug. The USDA report also stated that Ethiopia does not have the financial capability of labelling GMO foods at this time, so if/when these foods are introduced to the market, consumers have no way of knowing whether or not a food is genetically modified. These issues raise serious ethical concerns, go against the rights of the citizens to know what they are consuming and take away their ability to make an informed decision.

When we look at the economic effect, just four biotech companies control more than 60% of global proprietary seed sales. This requires farmers to repurchase seeds every year instead of saving them to reduce their expenses. Not only that, but these corporations have developed technologies like Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), also known as suicide or terminator seeds, to enforce a one-time use of seeds by farmers. Thus, this not only affects farmers at the economic level in the country, but also threatens their ability to compete in the global market.

Related to the major control of seeds and food productions that these companies have is the issue of sovereignty. Having the power to control one of the most essential and vital systems in a country – food production – is nothing short of neocolonialism. Colonialists in the past controlled land, food production, trade and labour to keep populations at large under colonial power. For Ethiopia, a country that fought and defeated colonial powers many times in the past, to willingly invite a neocolonial agenda is very disheartening, to say the least.

In conclusion, I strongly oppose the Ethiopian government’s decision to approve GMOs at this point in time when there are so many unknowns and clear evidence of the long-term negative effect on health, the environmental and socioeconomic make-up of the country’s population at large.

I look forward to hearing your views on the GMO debate.

Best wishes,

Hiwote Bekele

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Tesfaye Shiferaw Sida

Dear Hiwote,

Thank you for your letter, in which you outline your opposition to Ethiopia’s recent ‘approval’ of the cultivation of the controversial genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In 2015, Ethiopia replaced its extremely strict 2009 proclamation on biosafety with a loosened proclamation, which received an accolade from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The loosened proclamation allows ‘commercial cultivation of GM cotton and confined field research on GM maize and Enset.’ Ethiopia’s positive gesture to implement the latter proclamation has triggered severe debate among pro- and anti-GMO groups. You have been among the vocal opposition against Ethiopia’s stand.

While I differ with the debating voices, including yours, on numerous fronts, I will limit my arguments to your current letter. You underline that you ‘strongly oppose the Ethiopian government’s decision to adopt GMOs.’ This suggestion implies that Ethiopia has blatantly allowed mass production of GMOs, similarly to the U.S.A. Even under the current ‘relaxed’ regulation of GMOs, Ethiopia does not allow mass production and import of GMOs, per se, contrary to what most commentators seem to uphold. The proclamation only allows research institutions to collaborate with similar global institutions to conduct research with these organisms (except for cotton, where commercial cultivation is allowed). Given Ethiopia’s historically strict anti-GM regulations, this could be a big step in itself. It should be noted that the country has loosened regulations mainly on non-food products such as cotton, while the regulation stipulates only ‘confined field research’ on food crops, specifically maize and Enset, signifying Ethiopia’s prudence about widespread cultivation of GMOs.

You list four different issues that concern you about Ethiopia’s current move.

Your first concern is ‘long term effects on human health and the environment.’ You justify this worry by citing that ‘research on the long-term health effects of consuming GMO foods has been inconclusive.’ However, ‘inconclusive’ does not imply ‘harmful’. It only means we need more exploration and research. That is exactly what Ethiopia is trying to do with the current relaxed regulation.

Meanwhile, GMO foods have had a long, safe track record during their more than 20 years on the global market. The prestigious National Academy of Science agrees with US regulatory agencies, scientists, and leading health associations worldwide that food grown from GM crops is safe to eat. Consuming GMO food is no riskier than consuming the same foods containing similar ingredients from crops modified by conventional breeding techniques.

While it is correct that most ingredients in glyphosate are dangerous to the environment and human health, ascribing that directly to GMOs is a huge misplacement. On the contrary, disease and pest resistant GMOs can reduce over-reliance on toxic chemicals. Banning GMOs can result in negative health and environmental consequences because farmers would be forced to revert to older and more susceptible materials, which leads to the application of more toxic pesticides (including glyphosates).

Recent research outcomes have repeatedly found GMOs to be safer for the environment compared with their non-GM counterparts. Farmers who grow GM commodities, like soy and maize, do less tilling, which reduces topsoil loss and associated fertiliser runoff. Cultivation of pest-resistant GMO crops, such as Bt cotton, benefits environmental health through far fewer applications of pesticides. For example, a meta-analysis on the impacts of Genetically Modified crops, which explored 147 original studies, confirmed the superior environmental performance of GMOs compared with conventional products. This meta-analysis found that, on average, GMOs have reduced pesticide use by 37 percent, improved crop yields by 22 percent, and boosted profits by 68 percent. GM crops have also reduced CO2 emissions globally by 28 million tonnes per annum through reduced fuel use and enhanced soil carbon sequestration relative to conventional crops, since less tillage is required for weed control. These emissions savings are equivalent to the carbon sequestered by roughly 33 million hectares of tropical land, an area around 30% the size of Ethiopia.

Your second concern is ‘lack of awareness of the general public about GMOs.’ I agree with you that public involvement in policymaking has been generally uncommon in Ethiopia. However, this is not unique to GMOs, as policymaking in Ethiopia is notoriously top-down and elitist. Indeed, the GMO debate may jump-start the non-existent civic participation, although how the government responds to public concerns will remain to be seen. With public participation or without, something needs to be done about GMOs. Given the current global trends, the GMO technology is expected to expand. It is practically unthinkable for Ethiopia to remain an enduringly ‘GMO-free Island’ in a world submerged in the ‘GMO ocean’. Designing practical and pragmatic methods of handling GMOs and related benefits or harms becomes more sensible. Parallel to experimenting with GMOs, there should be strong biosafety regulations in place. Because of lack of public awareness, financial capability and limited technical knowledge of labelling and detecting GMO foods, the majority of the Ethiopian ‘general public’ may have already been consuming imported GM soy oil. How can we develop such technical capacity without conducting research on it? This is part of the reason why Ethiopia’s current move should be encouraged.

Your third concern is ‘negative economic effects on small-scale Ethiopian farmers.’ This concern arises from the fear that just a few biotech companies control the majority of GMO food production and patents on the seeds. This, indeed, is among the most plausible arguments against GMOs. It is true that patented GMO seeds are often protected by intellectual property rules, coercing farmers pledge to non-reuse of the seeds. However, the same procedure has been followed for hybrid seeds, which need to be purchased each season because their productivity falls enormously. In both cases, farmers choose to purchase these seeds because they get a better yield and make more profits. In many public sector projects, such as Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) (taking place in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda), farmers are free to save and share GMO seeds and no royalties are charged. I agree that the corporations’ individualist orientation with a ‘profit-above-all’ mentality would cripple the potential benefits from GMO seeds. A strong economic case can be made for the evils of monopoly in any sector, which is not limited to GMOs. It is more rational to devise a mechanism of curbing the corporations from such malevolent deeds rather than advocating for the complete ban of the GMO technology. Recently, there have been successful efforts to bypass GMO regulations with CRISPR gene editing and regulate monopolistic control of corporates over GMO seeds to assure ‘seed sovereignty’ for smallholder farmers.

Your fourth concern is ‘control of seeds and food productions that companies have is the issue of sovereignty.’ You declare this issue as ‘nothing short of neocolonialism.’ I believe this is too hyperbolic. One of the main evils of colonialism was that it was imposed by force, which is not the case for the GMO decision by Ethiopia. When discussing such global issues, countries make decisions based on the interests of their producers and consumers. In Africa, including Ethiopia, more than 60 percent of all citizens are still smallholder farmers. These farmers are highly unproductive, and so countries are forced to rely on food aid from the west. In addition, biotechnology, of which genetic engineering constitutes only a small section, is a knowledge-intensive scientific segment. Pushing GMO research away from Africa based only on unconfirmed fear of future risks is like quarantining the continent from an important category of knowledge, i.e., biotechnology. A real pan-Africanist agenda (i.e., resisting ‘neocolonialism’) should focus on gradually building an infrastructure of biosafety to accommodate new agricultural technologies and products, including GMOs. Opening up research and education to agricultural biotechnology should be the primary objective for the continent. Even to produce strict regulations against GMOs that are likely to flood African food systems from global markets, understanding these organisms is essential. Understanding stems from conducting research on these organisms, not by running away from them. It is difficult to produce meaningful safety protocols and regulate imported GMO items without basic skills, infrastructure and advanced knowledge about the organisms.

In conclusion:

Not all GMO products are devilish or angelic. Ethiopia and its scientists should not be stranded in the futile, circular and unproductive pro-GMO or anti-GMO skirmishes. A dogmatic promotion or opposition of GMOs can only complicate the outcome. There is a valid call to focus on targeted research that could confirm or refute existing claims. Common sense dictates that some GMO products could be valuable, while others could be perilous. Thus, selection, promotion and adoption of GM products must be evaluated on a ‘case-by-case’ basis.

GMO are far from being the ‘silver bullet’ to boost agricultural productivity. It only offers hope. Scientists and policymakers need to remain clear on this and emphasise specific properties of GMOs to solve major productivity problems, especially for smallholder farmers. A more pragmatic approach that explores alternative and operational pathways to harness the potential of these organisms benefits agricultural productivity, especially under smallholder systems, where alternatives are scarce.

To achieve optimum results from GMOs, we must manage trade-offs. Regardless of where someone (or a country) stands on GMO adoption, condemnations are certain to ensue. This happens because intensive production and environmental sustainability, whether using GMOs or other methods, inherently pose contradictory outcomes. Effective management that reduces trade-offs and the identification of the socio-ecological settings under which GMO-based production attempts may succeed should be explored. Such understanding will help to identify and avoid what works and what does not. The emphasis should be on achieving optimum results in the face of unavoidable trade-offs.

Strong regulatory mechanisms are required in GMO research and utilisation. When conducting research with GMOs in ‘confined fields’, the country needs to be very vigilant that no GM part or product escapes from the contained environment. The establishment of strong regulatory institutions with robust rules and procedures becomes essential. In parallel, the country may need to mobilise local funding capacity for research and development of GMOs. Otherwise, meddling from foreign seed corporations may influence the independence of research findings and its applications.

I look forward to continuing this conversation with you.

Best wishes,

Tesfaye Shiferaw Sida

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daniel.tan@syd…
The University of Sydney
23-11-2021 11:53
I have written a couple of blogs in Australia (see below) in response to the GMO debate in Australia. You may be interested to have a read:

https://theconversation.com/from-this-week-every-mainland-australian-state-will-allow-genetically-modified-crops-heres-why-thats-nothing-to-fear-159976

https://sbi.sydney.edu.au/whos-afraid-of-gm-crops/