Almost three years after the death of Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian parliament has approved a genetically modified organisms (GMO) law that relaxes the strict policy enforced under the late prime minister.
Called ‘A Proclamation to Amend the Biosafety Proclamation’, the very controversial Bill has been in process for eight months before making it successfully through the House of Peoples’ representatives on Tuesday, May 19, 2015.
The Bill was presented to the Parliament on October 8, 2014, 10 days after opening, and it was referred to the Natural Resources Development & Environmental Protection Standing Committee for further review. The Standing Committee then held five meetings with different stakeholders and brought a long awaited report to the Parliament the day it was approved.
The previous proclamation was said to be stringent and did not allow the involvement of local researchers in partnership with international researchers as it required full responsibility by the exporting country’s “competent national authority” for “the completeness and accuracy of the information provided” with the “informed agreement”.
“There was a strong interest from higher officials including the Head of State, the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Ministry of Agriculture [to effect the amendment],” a source close to the issue told Fortune. “The main interest, as it stands now, is that the government wants Bt cotton seed to meet the growing need.”
GMOs are created by human scientific intervention, mixing the genes of different organisms to produce certain qualities in one of them. For example, Bt cotton, a popular GMO crop, has the genes of a bacteria added to it so that the cotton plant can produce toxins that kill pests.
The new amended proclamation, excluding the signed confirmation of “the completeness and accuracy of the information provided” to run any research or use of the technology, came with a light provision allowing the involvement of Ethiopian scientists in the process of production or use only through a simple “application of advance informed agreement”.
“Now we will have the chance to exercise research on GMOs and work on GMOs imported from abroad,” Fantahun Mengistu (PhD), Director General of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) told Fortune. “There were challenges in getting the GMOs from companies like Monsanto and the Chinese Research Institute as they did not want to take the required responsibilities.”
Fantahun further explained that the research work on GMOs would start with non edible agricultural items.
The EIAR is organising a committee to select source and quality of GMO seeds to be ready when the directive for the proclamation is issued.
Since 2009/2010, the Institute has been constructing a Central Biotech Laboratory complete with a molecular lab, plant biotech, livestock biotech, microbial biotech and genetic engineering facilities in Holeta, with the last feature yet to begin as a result of the new amendment.
There are also 20 biotechnologists at the Holeta laboratory to conduct research. In addition to the Holeta laboratory, the Institute also has an open fenced and isolated farm for contained use at Werer-Afar Region.
“The Ministry was called three times to explain the need for the amendment; some parliamentarians are very cautions of the impacts of GMOs,” said a source that is close to the issue.
Because of the lag to approve the Bill, one cultivation season was missed and the EIAR plans to use the coming cultivation season to get into action, Fantahun says.
“We are planning to import and experiment on Bt cotton this summer,” said Fantahun. “The use and experimentation of these organisms will have no impact on the environment as our country’s diversity of cotton is very small.”
The standing committee reported that its members voted unanimously for the amendment, after holding meetings with the MoFE, EIAR, researchers and law experts.
According to the report, the amendment enables the proclamation to “solve problems that have been faced during implementation, improve research and technology transfer” and also enables the country’s gain from the technology to be in harmony with the environment.
Dr Tewoldeberhan Gebreegziabher, once Ethiopia’s environment chief and the developing world’s voice in global biosafety negotiations, now an advisor to the Minister of Forestry & Environment, says that the amendment has no problems as it is meant only for research purposes.
“Releasing to the environment is punishable unless the researcher persuades the benefit of releasing the GMO to the environment,” he said, declining to make further comments.
In a statement he made on September 4, 2003, a week ahead of the ratification of the Biosafety Protocol, the then Director General of the Environmental Protection Authority, had said, “Developing world agriculture systems are adapted to their geography, economy and culture, and GM farming systems that require capital and chemicals threaten our agriculture and food security. Ethiopia is strongly against the hasty introduction of GM crops, because as a centre of origin and crop diversity, we recognise the assets that come from a biologically diverse, locally adapted, small-scale agriculture.
“This is why African nations have fought so hard for the Biosafety Protocol, which can provide us with a legal basis on which to protect our own food sovereignty. We suspect that Africa is high on the agenda for the US next push for GM acceptance. And we resent the way that the stereotyped image of the hungry in developing countries has been used to force a style of agriculture that will only exacerbate problems of hunger and poverty.”
Million Belay (PhD), director of the local NGO Melka Ethiopia, believes that the amendment was rushed through parliament because members were not being deeply informed, although the issue had previously been followed.
“Different lobbying organs influenced the process,” he said.