Ethiopian Gov’t refutes ‘untrue’ report of GMOs

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Following public outcry, the government clarifies its stance on GMOs. Experts say the intention is to distract public attention. 

The Ethiopian government has denied approving the commercial cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) other than two Bt cotton varieties.

An official from the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) told BBC Amharic that the recent report about the country opening its agricultural sector to GM crops was not entirely true. Esayas Lemma, Director of Crop Development Directorate at Ministry of Agriculture, was quoted as saying that even though Ethiopia has approved two GMOs varieties of cotton for use only by investors of large plantation, this does not mean that the country has approved all GMO crops.

“The two cotton varieties that we have brought from India have been successful and have been authorized. But we have not allowed other crops as they did in other countries,” he said.

Ethiopia has long been resisting GMOs, despite intensive lobby from multi-national giants. However, in 2015, it approved the commercial cultivation of genetically modified Bt cotton and field research on GM maize. Following two years of confined field trials, the Bt-Cotton has secured the approval from the Ethiopia Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in June 2018 for “environmental release.” The move has recently been praised by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service, which went on so far as to say that it would have a positive influence on the acceptance of this technology in the region. The report has provoked intense debate for and against GMOs in recent weeks.

But according to Esayas, even for those two authorized varieties, there are still unsolved issues. “Directive has not been issued on how to move forward with confinement and containment operation and making sure that the cotton seeds would be used only by big investors. So it has not happened. The seeds have not yet been imported,” he said.  

One of the issues is the Indian company’s insistence on a corporate monopoly over the cottonseeds, the Director said. “We are still in the negotiation process for the cotton varieties to be developed here than to be supplied every year,” he said. Esayas did not mention the name of the company but previous reports indicate it was Mahyco, Indian subsidiary company of the US-based Monsanto, acquired by Bayer in June 2018.

The official did not say anything about the GE maize and Enset trials, which were mentioned in the USDA report. A five-year permit was issued to conduct confined trials on TELA corn, which was developed under the philanthropic Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), according to the report. A collaborative project using genetic engineering to develop varieties of enset was also being carried out, the USDA report says.

Some commentators reject the latest statement made by the official of the Ministry of Agriculture. “The issue of GMOs is not their mandate. They are not mandated by Public Health, Food Safety, and Biosafety proclamations. Why is the Ministry out with this statement? I think it is trying to distract public attention from the issue and stop the current outcry. But the people will continue to push for correct information,” Teshome Hunduma, a PhD research fellow at Norwegian University of Life Sciences, told Ethiopia Observer.

Environmental activists say Ethiopia should proceed with caution in adopting GMOs given the adverse impacts that have been noted elsewhere, including the emergence of superweeds, herbicide resistance, and genetic pollution.

Image: A woman collects cotton in a field near Arba Minch town. (Photo by Arefaynie Fantahun.)

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