The process and introduction of biotechnology to Africa has been under a serious vigilant acumen of activist groups that stood firm against genetic engineering or modifications of crops. It serves to say that in today’s world, the biotechnology discipline overall has been extremely canvassed and when it comes to Ethiopia by extension Africa, the fierce face off rocks depending on the political landscape.
Although the issue of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has been a relatively recent phenomenon to Ethiopia, it has been widely controversial in the field of biotechnology.
Campaigners from both sides, devotees and anti-genetic engineering groups, still preserve a dubious clinch in Africa. The continent appears to be a front line for such topics. Despite heated incongruities, some nations are giving in to Genetically Engineered (GE) and laboratory generated organisms. Ethiopia and a few more countries have endorsed laws to offer access and use of genetic engineering.
Back in 2011, Ethiopian bureaucrats were met with major incidents. A stark drought was ravaging East Africa and close to 20 million people were in dire situation. While thousands perished from hunger Ethiopia was stressed to nourish nine million hungry souls. On the other hand, the likes of US and donor countries were admonishing Ethiopian officials for ratifying a bio safety law.
In 2009, the country came up with such a restrictive bio safety law that barred experimentation, development and importations of bio technologically engineered or Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Except with minor relaxation to import GM foods meant for consumption only.
That law that prohibited genetic engineering practices in Ethiopia, gradually eased restrictions to allow trials and releasing of biotech agricultural, industrial, and medical and other genetic alterations to be carried out. The Ethiopian Biotechnology Institute was formed to facilitate and develop science-based solutions including genetic engineering.
For years, advocates of organic produce battled with GE experts on derivatives of science that came in the name of providing solutions for life threatening circumstances. However, neither side could reach mutually affable ground. Both sides held enormous resentments with unsettled divergences towards GMOs and genome editing practices.
The rationale behind introducing GE cotton has been associated with poor performance, lower productivity and unsatisfactory yield in the agriculture sector. According to literature, bollworm is a damaging maggot that feasts on cotton and other crops and substantially devastates the cotton productivity and yields.
To fight bollworm, biotech experts came up with the idea of engineering cotton seeds biologically. The result is a pest resistant new GM cotton, which is termed after the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis cotton (Bt cotton) from which part of its gene blended into cotton genes. Since the 1990s, Bt cotton has become a shared industry seed for cotton growers and breeders. For instance, India’s 95 percent cotton plantation is currently covered by Bt cotton varieties.
Scientists argue that Bacillus thuringiensisyields some 200 diverse toxins, each detrimental to numerous insects. Particularly Bt toxins are insecticidal to the larvae of moths, butterflies, beetles, cotton bollworms and the likes.
The case the government of Ethiopia makes with regard to BT cotton goes with elucidating the need to no longer to depend on subsistence farming, imports of food commodities and agricultural inputs. The agricultural sector has on no occasion been able to feed the needs of the budding textile and garment production in Ethiopia. Severe shortage of raw material has forced numerous manufacturers to rely on imports.
Regardless of Ethiopia’s potential to plant some seven million hectares with cotton, mass production, at least at the level the manufacturing sector needs, has not been realized yet. There are local and foreign companies vested in the production of cotton, yet it continues to wobble. Farmers as well have lingered with sets of low-slung efficiency for years. The need for raw materials for the textile, garment or fabric and apparel industries remain growing. The introduction of industrial parks and the coming of big foreign businesses to join the textile and apparel sectors have reinforced the hunt for the supply of viable inputs.
With that note, back in 2018, the Environment Forest and Climate Change Commission approved the commercial cultivation of GM cotton, granting license for the safe completion of the two years of confined field trials the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) was conducting. The two GM-cotton hybrid seeds (JKCH 1947, JKCH 1050) sourced from Indian company JK Agri Genetics Limited, have officially been approved to hit the market. The country is now implementing at full swing and currently commercialization of GM cotton has cropped up ensuing some 300 hectares of plantation.
The government has considered cotton to be a vital commercial crop and a decisive raw material for the budding textile industry. Moreover, since last year, the biotech cotton gave way to pursue lab and field trials on other GM food crops.
Maize and Enset(commonly referred as false-banana) are the chiefly sought after food crops Ethiopia approves for genetically engineering practices. The Foreign Agricultural Services under the US State Department of Agriculture in its “Agricultural Biotechnology Annual Report” has provided some details on how Ethiopia is advancing and progressing in its trials on GM maize and Enset, in addition to the Bt cotton status. For instance, on maize, EIAR is working on a restricted and confined field trials of a GM event with stacked traits for drought tolerance and insect resistance GM maize crops. The institute has sought a partnership with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation for the task.
In 2018, the Environment, Forest and Climate Change Commission and bio safety technical working team issued a five year permit for institutes to conduct confined field trials on drought tolerant and pest resistant maize “WEMA-TELA Maize”, developed under the philanthropic Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), a project run in partnership with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. The WEMA-TELA Maize trials, as USDA report cites, have been conducted positively last year by the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research. The second trial is planned to be piloted in the coming November throughout the dry season with the application of precise drip irrigation systems.
Ethiopian researchers collaborate with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) using genetic engineering to develop varieties of Enset that are resistant to the devastating bacterial wilt disease. If successful, this research could have a real impact on food security in the region. Researches have turned to genetic engineering to disentangle this controversial issue as conventional breeding possibilities have been found to be unproductive for the last three decades.
Ethiopian researchers have explained they are working closely with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) on an Enset bacterial wilt project. The idea here is to develop resistant varieties through modern agricultural biotechnology.
Enset, an old and well-domesticated Ethiopian banana also commonly known as false banana, is a key food security crop for a major part of the country. Enset is referred to as a “native non-tree crop serving the livelihoods of some 20 million people”, mostly well serving as chief source of food for the South and Southwestern parts of Ethiopia where the population concentration is more than 700 people per square kilometre.
Enset can withstand long periods of drought, heavy rains, and flooding, which normally devastate other crops. However, bacterial wilt is devastating the crop, hence threatening food security for over 15 million people who depend on it as a staple food. Thirty years of research efforts by the national system to manage and control bacterial wilt of Enset using conventional techniques could not succeed due to absence of resistant clones in the genetic base of the crop.
To support the food security programs in the country, the government grasps biotechnology as an alternative to nurture the country’s agrarian economy. There are no officially known active campaigns to discourage or scare consumers from eating food products containing GE ingredients. This is in part because there is little consumer awareness of this technology combined with the fact that there are so few foods in the marketplace that are made from GE crops.
That said, leading up to parliament’s ratification of the newly revised Bio safety Proclamation in August of 2015, there were efforts within the anti-GM activist and environmental and consumer rights groups to discourage the government from moving ahead with the new legislation to support the food security programs in the country.
While the GM scientists claim that there is no harm but benefit from such crops, well established anti-GM groups have re calibrated their call and recently reinforced their campaigns to pressure the Ethiopian government to reconsider that GM crops have potential harms. A new coalition of Ethiopian Civil Society Organizations and their global allies have launched a campaign against the cultivation of GMOs in Ethiopia.
They argue that the bio safety of the country will be seriously jeopardized. The pretexts of lack of inputs for textile and garment industries, precisely cotton, was one of the factors that drew attention to amend the restrictive bio safety law first enacted in 2009.
However, both sides never had the willingness to sit and sort differences. Both anti-GM groups and the GM advocates use conventional media and social media to fight one another. The pro-GM groups claimanti-GM activists lack science but like to sensationalize. The anti-GM groups try to belittle GM advocates as corrupt people who work for the interests of big multinationals. From health concerns all the way to economic domination are some of the issues the anti-GM groups are trying to sell to pressure law makers, politicians and other influencers.
The issue remains unresolved as Ethiopia moves to embrace genetically modified crops. More interestingly, anti-GM groups are considering the agenda to be more political and they are lobbying the GM to be one of the topics debated during the upcoming national election.