Tadesse Daba (PhD) is lead research and national coordinator at the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB-Eth), under the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research.
Tadesse and his team of researchers are the custodians of Ethiopia’s nascent efforts to tackle food insecurity using biotechnology – an initiative that gained momentum following the Biosafety Proclamation ratified in 2015, which allowed the adoption of genetically modified (GM/GMO) crops albeit with stringent government supervision and regulation.
In the last few years, Ethiopian researchers and their partners have begun work on the adoption of genetically modified strains of cotton, maize, potato, and Enset (false banana). Most of the GM crops under development at the Institute are currently the subject of laboratory and contained field tests, with the exception of GM cotton, which has already been introduced to commercialized farming in Ethiopia.
As it does globally, the two-sided argument over GMO products persists in Ethiopia. While many contend GMOs are vital for food security in the face of increasingly frequent droughts and humanitarian crises affecting particularly the Horn of Africa, others argue from a consumers’ rights point of view, as well as for the protection of indigenous crop varieties.
The Reporter’s Nardos Yoseph made the trip to the Holeta Agricultural Research Center, where Ethiopian GMO research is based, for a conversation with Tadesse. EXCERPTS:
The Reporter: Ethiopia was an outspoken opponent of GMO products and research prior to 2015, and although the tide has turned somewhat since, the anti-GMO rationale still has many strong supporters. One of their major concerns is that GMO seeds could threaten unique indigenous plant varieties, and some call for researchers to focus on hybrid crops rather than GMOs. Can the utilization of GMO seeds lead to a loss of biodiversity?
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Tadesse (PhD): GMOs is the biotechnology of artificially changing the genes or characteristics of a certain species into the desired kind. Every species used in these kinds of research is drawn from what already exists in the natural order. When we endeavor into this science, most people make comparisons of GMOs with cross-breeding or even with other species. But this isn’t the purpose behind the science. Genetic Modification, genetic engineering or genome editing, are all aspects of biotechnology. Whether it is a plant or an animal species, the work and benefit of GMO is in enabling us to transfer a selected gene character of one species to another one, which could otherwise not be possible to do through the natural process, hybridization or by selective cross-breeding.
The modification of a certain species could be needed either to boost yield production or for yield protection. We only add a specific trait to a species to give it more product capacity or an ability to protect itself from a certain disease. Besides that, GMO is neither a species of its own nor is it a system that replaces plant or animal species’ heredity, despite what others make it look out to be.
Anti-GMO proponents often cite environmental risks, such as genetic contamination or inter-breeding, potential ecosystem impacts, and increased selection pressure on target and non-target organisms as arguments against the research. The WHO lists direct health effects like toxicity, tendency to trigger allergic reactions, among other negative effects, could result from consuming GMO products. These environmental and health-related arguments are often the core issues behind GMO adoption. What do you make of them?
In applying the results of scientific research, especially related to genetic engineering, a large portion of investment goes into the regulatory aspects [of the research]. To avail a certain biotechnology product to the masses, researchers first have to go through the steps of identifying an organism with a specific trait, extracting its DNA, identifying primers, spotting out restriction enzymes, and then inserting the gene. All this requires a significant amount of time and investment, as well as a high level of skill. Completing this process and availing the technology to the public is not possible in a timeframe of less than 10-15 years, most of which is spent on efforts related to safety assurance.
For instance, we can observe the operations of the three regulatory wings under the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The first wing examines what kinds of influences are imposed by the genetic modification on the species engineered. This includes the effects of the gene on the species and its original characteristics, anything that could be scientifically analyzed at a molecular level, confined area testing, and field trials. The tasks generally take up to 10 years. The second regulatory wing studies the effects of the technology on food and feed, including any health-related matters. The final one researches the difference between the genetically modified species and the original. Each wing conducts extensive and detailed research, lasting several years.
Then, the [US] Environmental Protection Agency reviews the research from each wing, and makes a decision on whether the technology is fit for public use.
All of the assessments are carried out by independent governmental research institutions, and not by the biotech provider. The approval is only issued if the genetically engineered species doesn’t have any harmful components that could result in a negative impact on human health, food and feed products, and the environment. All genetic engineering research is subject to this [process] before distribution to the public.
However, GMO science is a little complicated, and those who comprehend it are few. This creates the opportunity for others to use this gap in knowledge to disseminate misinformation and create confusion. We are aware of the existence of groups that generate money for themselves through [the dissemination of misinformation]. There are also those who genuinely and legitimately inquire whether GMOs cause harm both to the environment and human health because they have the perceived belief that it is not natural. We understand this and their questions are legitimate and acceptable. But, that is not the main problematic issue.
How do you differentiate between what you call legitimate inquiries from those looking for financial gain through spreading misconceptions?
The people with genuine doubts are just worried with perceptions of GMO dilapidating the environment or putting the people’s health at risk, because they say it is not natural. They are arguing and asking questions that emanate from genuine care for their people and country. What they have is a misunderstanding that can be corrected.
The others eyeing financial gain have a much larger connection. For instance, there are entities that call themselves “organic farmers” in foreign countries like the US and in Europe. Organic farming is using the methods of our forefathers, and it avoids the application of any fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. But there is no farmer that operates purely in that way. They must at least use either herbicides or pesticides and, in that case, it is not purely organic.
Most products we use all over the world are usually neither organic nor are they GMOs. However, companies that claim to produce organic food and sell it at a very high price connect with these groups organized as certain civil societies. Then they approach professors, companies that shape the people’s opinion and others, provide them with the financing, and disseminate misinformation about GMOs. They are funded to say GMOs are harmful and such.
In reality, the argument has no correlation with what biotechnology research really is. The scientist is the one that always pushes for research safety and security measures to be taken, not others.
Controversy surrounds the Biosafety Proclamation that came along in 2015, with some arguing it was not preceded by sufficient deliberations and its ratification was rushed through Parliament just before MPs went into recess. Some say it was not referred to the relevant parliamentary standing committee, nor was it deliberated elsewhere. There are also assertions that it was overshadowed by the more controversial Antiterrorism Proclamation, which pulled attention away from the less politically-charged biosafety law. As a senior figure at one of the institutions that advocated and pushed for the Biosafety Proclamation, what is your response to these claims?
All of these claims are not true. The reason the proclamation was amended for biosafety research comes from the point of view of the growth in the world’s biotechnology capacity. It became apparent that developing our own aptitude towards this technology would be useful for the country. We were able to introduce the GMO BT cotton input for the textile industry, providing ball worm resistant cotton for them was a very strategically essential move, as without this specific input the industry faced the risk of collapsing.
Concerning cotton, we informed the industry about the benefits of this technology and its power over the quality of improvement. For two or three consecutive years, we demonstrated the safety measures we take in developing such technology and the meticulous procedures we follow to the parliamentary standing committee that oversees the agriculture sector.
In the process of ratifying the proclamation, aside from the work we showed them and the testimonials of our work, foreign experts were invited to provide further explanations. There were members of Parliament who were very educated about the research we were advocating for, and they examined every stage of the inspection process in place for such technologies to gain approval and enter local cultivation systems.
In this country, barring pharmaceutical production procedures, there is no match for the elevated safety measures taken under genetic engineering research projects. The standing committee observed that. But they did not stop there. They traveled to countries like India, where GMO cotton technology is applied on the ground by farmers. India is the world’s leading cotton exporter. India, China, the US, Brazil and Pakistan are the top-five cotton exporting countries, where more than 95 percent of their product is genetically modified varieties of cotton. The standing committee saw all that, and then went through a very detailed inspection of the application procedures for biotechnology research in Ethiopia. They amended the proclamation only after that, not because other entities were pushing for it.
I can honestly tell you it is the scientists who truly care about and work for the people and country – much more than the people who make these backdoor claims about the proclamation.
Some point out the firms that provide Ethiopia with GMO seeds are all foreign, while the push for the utilization of GMOs on farmers’ fields has mostly come from within. So, the argument is that GMO advocates or lobby groups are instruments for multinational companies, who trap farmers into complete dependence on their products and seeds. Is this what is happening?
This argument, in general, is acceptable but when examined in detail it turns out to be such a false one. Do we manufacture fertilizers in this country? Isn’t it foreign multinational firms that sell it to us? More than 80 percent of the maize seeds planted in the country are hybrid. This means we have to buy the improved seeds every year. If it were open pollinated, we wouldn’t have to do this. Which one of the necessary agricultural inputs are actually produced in this country? Even if we decide not to benefit from biotechnology, does Ethiopia manufacture pesticides?
So, why have these arguments never been raised against all of this, but only on GMOs?
The export destinations for most European countries that manufacture herbicides and pesticides are poor Asian and African countries like Ethiopia. I say that if poor countries utilize the full capacity of biotechnology, they wouldn’t need these products, possibly bankrupting these multinational companies.
Depending on the species, we need five to 10 kg of seed to sow a hectare of land. For instance, the price of one kilogram of BT cotton is USD 30. The price of the one round of imported chemical to be sprayed on a cotton field is higher than the price of GM cotton seeds.
In this country, we have very organized and highly skilled scientists. We only have an input availability problem. We can make genetic modifications as per the international standard in this country, but there are some inputs we lack. If it’s about being enslaved in buying the products of the foreign multinational companies, it is not GMO researchers that are doing that. The country’s agricultural inputs imports list indicates who is really doing what.
In 2021, there were reports that a company based in India, JK Agri Genetics Ltd, had agreed to bring out its GMO seeds patent in Ethiopia and multiply it. What is its status?
The first genetically improved seed in Ethiopia is cotton. The US is home to the world’s pioneering cotton biotech form. Back then, we asked this company to provide Ethiopia with GM cotton species. Most of the cotton seed our farmers use is a Delta Pine variety called Delta Pine 90. Ethiopia asked the US Company to sell us a GM version of this seed. Because there were talks of GM regulations being strict in Ethiopia and looking at the larger picture, the market here appeared minimal to them, and they responded that they were not interested.
The Ethiopian government was pushing for the development of the cotton industry and through it, the textile manufacturing sector. Right now, we don’t even cover 50 percent of the textile industry’s cotton demand. The goal was to fill the gap with better cotton production. So, Ethiopia turned its head to India. We presented our appeal in eight locations in India. Two species of cotton were found, thoroughly examined at every stage, and permits were granted to get it commercialized.
The then Minister of Agriculture, Eyasu Abrha (PhD), the management of the Institute of Agricultural Research, and myself, had repeated discussions on the need for Ethiopia to have sustainable access to quality seeds. Our farmers don’t have access to foreign currency so building a system of sustainable access was a must.
The Indian Company JK Agri Genetics was given three options. First, because the amount of seed we require annually is minimal, the temporary solution was to just buy it. The second option was to collaborate with large cotton manufacturing companies of Ethiopia and commence its production. The last was for the government to provide them with a plot of land where they could do the breeding work here as their seeds are hybrid. This hybrid process needs lots of scientists, to which the company would have to pay a large amount of money to come and work here. The amount of seed annually needed in the country then, was not sufficient for them to cover those kinds of investments. So, they said the demand was not enough, and they would consider the second and third options when the East Africa market grows large enough.
The following year, we provided the Ministry of Agriculture with documents that highlighted demand from farmers for the government to buy the seeds and sell it to them. But there was a shortage of foreign currency, resulting in some farmer’s facing losses as they hadn’t sown anything, waiting for the seeds to arrive.
The second year, a firm called Almera Technology approached the Institute saying it had interest-free funding from a Middle Eastern bank that could be used to import the seeds. However, when the time came, the company said changes in the bank’s management had put it in a compromising position and it was no longer able to do what it had promised.
There are those who ask why there is such a focus on genetic engineering and GMOs before exploiting indigenous species. What would you reply to them?
Genetically modified organisms should not be mixed with local varieties. Genetic engineering is a means to add a desired characteristic to a species that does not possess that specific character naturally. It is not a species by itself. If, let’s say, the local variety of maize is not resistant to a certain disease, GMO technology equips it with that resistant gene while maintaining its natural state. GMO is not a way to bring out another entirely new species. Most Ethiopian agricultural research is split into 12 sectors, focusing on several aspects from conventional research to genetic engineering. There are only one or two GMO studies among the total.
BT cotton has been commercialized. There are talks that the seeds’ USD 28 per kilo price tag is too high for farmers, and this is in addition to other costs incurred on accessories needed to maintain their GMO crop. How productive is GMO cotton? Have there been any assessments carried out?
Yes, we have conducted assessments on quality and productivity from the time [the cotton] was in the confined field testing period. Productivity depends on the species we select, not on genetic modification. Any species can be modified. No cotton species is ball worm resistant – we added one gene that could do that through genetic engineering. We have carried out reputable research over its capability to resist. In each modified plant, there are standards for determining how much of a better performance it should register for it to be permitted for commercialization. BT Cotton’s average ball worm resistant capacity is up to 40 percent per yield.
Is the wheat being used in the much-publicized Ethiopian lowlands cluster farming project a gene edited variety?
GM wheat has never been imported to Ethiopia. While there is some progress in growing [wheat’s] nutrient capacity in Argentina, there is no gene edited wheat in the world. Ethiopia’s lowland wheat seed is multiplied by the country’s own companies and the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute. We are not directly sowing the imported wheat in the country’s lowlands. The wheat in Ethiopia has no correlation with any gene editing.
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