Ethiopia is embracing GMOs slowly, quietly

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Ethiopia is embracing GMOs slowly, quietly

Global conglomerates of farm inputs, seeds, fertilizer, GMO crops providers, are coming to Ethiopia. Are they bringing a miraculous solution to the country’s food security problem, as they claim or delayed toxicity, as detractors argue?

(ethiopiaobserver)—Twenty-five large French companies and entities in the agricultural field will be making an exploratory visit to Ethiopia from 15 September to 19 September 2019, according to the Ethiopian Embassy in France.

Most of them are from an international agricultural co-operative called Limagrain Group, a group of radical rural campaigners claiming to be in favour of open-field [GM] experiments. Established as a cooperative, the French group is active in the field of vegetable seeds and field crops (corn, wheat, etc.) via the Vilmorin listed company, of which it controls 72.5% of the capital.

The company has been providing the corn and soybean seeds that it develops in similar climates in Latin America and Asia to West African countries such as Cameroon, Mali and Senegal. More than 330,000 tons of grain are processed each year in seven production plants across Europe, according to Limagrain.

In 2014, Limagrain has invested up to US$60 million for a 28% stake in SeedCo, one of Africa’s largest home-grown seed companies, despite opposition from certain corners. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a Pan African platform comprising networks and farmer organizations described Limagrain’s move as an attempt to devour the continent’s seed company through acquisition and neo-colonial occupation by the French to benefit from SeedCo’s involvement in input subsidy schemes in Africa.

A pair of zebu oxen pulling a maresha, the traditional plough photo by Philippe Compain

GMO variety testing

The Ethiopian officials consider the arrival of multinational companies in the agricultural and other sectors as a welcome move in a bid to help the country become self-sufficient and potentially exporters of food. However, critics say some fundamental issues, such as the effects of the imported seeds, fertilizers and genetically modified crops, and the ecological, economic impacts of introducing new plants into the environment are being glossed over for the sake of presenting it all in a positive light. “Whoever controls the seed market controls the food supply and the people. Technology can be good if properly utilized, but the issue of power concentration in few hands is worrying”, says Teshome Hunduma, who is currently doing research on seed system development from Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

Farmers cannot save and reuse hybrid seeds as the yield decreases when recycled. They have to buy every year and this creates dependency.

Limagrain describes its products, not as GMO but rather seed selection and varietal cross-breeding to offer more productive varieties. Explaining the nature and virtue of those grain and seeds, Frédéric Savin, Limagrin’s Africa director says “It is a hybrid variety. It offers substantial progress. Compared with the local variety, the result is nearly double.” Teshome agrees with Mr. Savin on the high yield that farmers get from hybrid seeds. The problem is that “farmers cannot save and reuse hybrid seeds as the yield decreases when recycled. They have to buy every year and this creates dependency. Which means it is risky when the company fails to supply seeds due to various reasons and decide on the price of these seeds. Farmers prefer open-pollinated varieties for the purpose of saving and reuse,” explains Teshome.

Even in its own turf, the company has been facing resistance and opposition from a broad range of farm, consumer, environmental and health organizations. In January 2018, Limagrain’s two plots of wheat had been destroyed in Seine-et-Marne, France by mowers who accused of the company running “hidden GMOs.” The company lamented that its one year of field trials was lost, costing it around one million euros.

Limagrain is not completely new to Ethiopia. It has already been collaborating with an intermediary, an Israeli-based NGO (some say a lobbyist), Fair Planet to provide seeds to Ethiopian farmers for the past three years.

On its website, Fair Planet says it works to “increase food security and provide new economic opportunities for smallholder farmers in developing countries, through access to high-quality seed varieties.” To secure those seeds, Fair Planet partners with the global agribusiness conglomerates. Other than Limagrain, these include Switzerland’s Syngenta, Netherland’s Enza Zaden and East-West Seed, Germany’s Bayer-Monsanto. Whether big multinational companies selling seeds to small farmers are the solution remain a question among certain professionals.

Farmers using his cows for threshing harvest photoby Philippe Compain

Stating that the subsistence farming method in Ethiopia is inefficient and marked by significantly lower yields, Fair Planet claims that farmers working with it can increase productivity more than five times and increase income up to eight times.  However, AFSA objects to this characterization. “The vast bulk of food produced on the continent comes from homegrown farmers’ seeds (some studies put the figure at 80%). If these seeds are so “backward,” what moves farmers to keep preserving and planting them?” it asks in one of its newsletters.

BASF, another German chemical group and the world’s third-largest crop chemicals supplier, has also been active in the Ethiopian vegetable seed business since August 2018. Abnet Belachew, country manager to Ethiopia with BASF trade office said that the group works to complete the agricultural solutions concentrated around biological and chemical deliverables, soil fertility enhancement and pest and diseases protections. In addition to products that help deter infestations of fall armyworm in maize, BASF has been supplying diverse pesticides for crop protection, he told the Reporter.

Yet BASF’s genetically modified products have not been always welcomed in Europe. Three of the first genetically modified potatoes were forbidden from being sold in Europe in January 2013, forcing the company to withdraw its applications for marketing authorization in the European Union.

Ethiopia has long been resisting genetically modified organisms and food options that are often adulterated by pesticides, despite intensive lobbying, often by the purveyors of GMO seeds, multi-national giants. However, all indications are it is now succumbing to the promises of GMOs, gradually and discretely.

Corteva Agriscience, the agriculture division of the American brand DowDuPont, opened its office in Addis Ababa on mid-April, 2019. The company says it is focused on bringing farmers “best-in-class seeds and crop protection solutions”, to maximize the farmer’s yields and improve their profitability in these markets, as it was stated at the launching ceremony. However, what was not mentioned was how lawmakers in several states of the USA were trying to ban one of its products, a pesticide called chlorpyrifos that said to kill insects on contact by attacking their nervous systems. “Several studies have linked prenatal exposure of chlorpyrifos to lower birth weights, lower IQs, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other developmental issues in children,” Ana B. Ibarra wrote on Governing website.

The entrance of those companies in the Ethiopian agriculture sector would have major ramifications, specialists say. Teshome Hunduma told Ethiopia Observer the discussions related to GMOs have always been a sustainability question i.e. whether they are environmentally safe, technically appropriate, economically viable and socially acceptable or not.

He says there is also an issue of power balance between multinational companies that have control over the technology through intellectual property rights such as patents and weak governments in the Global South like Ethiopia and their subsistence farmers.

In Ethiopia, one person particularly was key in trying to keep genetically modified crops at bay through adamant and active opposition: Dr. Tewolde B. Gebre Egziabher. The man who served as Ethiopia’s General Manager for Environmental Protection Authority for more than two decades actively took part in international negotiations for the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to safeguard biodiversity and defend traditional rights of farmers and communities to their crop diversity. The CBD was finalized in 1992. Tewolde led the African and Like-Minded Group in negotiations for what was called Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety finally agreed in Montreal, Canada in 2000. In Ethiopia, he initiated and worked to enact a biosafety proclamation in 2009 based on precautionary principles as a foundation for GMO regulation system to avoid potential social, economic and environmental risks.

The amemndement of the bio-safety law

However, in 2014, Ethiopia approved the commercial cultivation of genetically modified insect-resistant BT cotton and field research on GM maize. “The amendment of the law was not because Ethiopia was keen on biotechnology research or because it had the capacity to ensure the use of GMOs that may have adverse effects on biological diversity and subsistence farmers,” Teshome says. Rather the government has made the amendment to allow GM pest-resistant plant cotton variety, which produces an insecticide to kill bollworm namely BT cotton to meet the growing textile industry in Ethiopia, Teshome told Ethiopia Observer.

However, Teshome explained, the Ethiopian government has not used an independent study that examines the experience of other countries on the benefits and risks of BT cotton when it amended its biosafety law. “We know that BT cotton failed in Burkina Faso due to loss of its insect-resistant traits and yield potential over time,” he added.

In recent years, government officials began working to develop a legislative mechanism, while practising GMO variety testing. Whether the genetically modified plants should be treated like their conventional equivalents or should a precautionary approach should be taken has to be decided.

For Teshome, even the regulatory system is not up to the standard in Ethiopia and the institutional arrangement is inconvenient as mandates are shared between the Ministry of Agriculture, and Environment, Forest and Climate Change Commission (currently under the Prime Minister’s office).  Ethiopia needs to get its institutional arrangement right and address the public concern around the technology, he concluded.

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