Ethiopia’s Parliament has these haphazard moments where it shows its zeal for a bite…

Ethiopia’s Parliament has these haphazard moments where it shows its zeal for a bite, gossip observed. Whispers says that in the post-Meles years, MPs take themselves and their roles seriously, they try to hold the administration and its top brass to account, grilling them on legislative affairs and performance matters.

One of these rare moments was last week, claims gossip. Belete Tafere, minister of Environment Protection & Forestry, and his aides, were before MPs, appearing for a third time to explain the administration’s motive in rewriting a law on bio-safety, gossip disclosed. It is one of the five legislative targets Belete’s Ministry plans to accomplish under and before the conclusion of the administration’s development foot-print, Growth & Transformation Plan (GTP), gossip reveals.

The particular bill tabled to Parliament last week was first issued in 2009, and outlaws the imports, distributions and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Authored by Tewolde G. Egziyabher (PhD), a retired former chief of the environmental watchdog before it was upgraded to a ministry, and currently an advisor to the Minister, this law imposes severe criminal liability on those who may take part in the import and use of GM seeds. It was legislation far from thoughtful consideration to its implications and consequences to a nation struggling just to put its heads up, claims gossip. The country remains to have virtually no resources and laboratories to inspect the imports of bioengineered seeds and food commodities, while its tolerates those processed foods with GMO components, which is to mean food aid from the United States, gossip says.

One of the requirements this legislation puts even on research agencies, such as Ethiopia’s Agricultural Research Institute (EARI), is for them to get letters of commitment from governments where the GMOs brought from samples that they would compensate for damages as a result of their use. No government, least of all the United States, from where many of the GMOs originate, has been willing to do just that, claims gossip.

Ironically, the same administration which has legislated this law, albeit under firm hands of the late Meles Zenawi, finds itself trapped between compliance to its own rules and advancing its growth ambitions with as little irritation as it can get, according to gossip.

One of these growth ambitions is boosting the nation’s capability to generate revenues from its more diversified exports, gossip observed. In the not so traditional sector, the administration aspires to generate over a billion dollars from the exports of garment and textiles from the nascent industry. Alas, the bottleneck preventing this remains the cotton farms, who are unable to produce half a million tons, which the industry desperately demands, claims gossip.

At the root of the failure is the variety of cotton prone to disease. The type of pesticides used for years and produced by a factory in Adami Tulu, Oromia Regional State, have a substance banned globally for its hazardous results to the environment. This leaves the administration with the only option of a disease resistant genetically modified seed named BT Cotton, arguably widely used in India, gossip disclosed.

Understandably, no official or research executive from the Ministry of Agriculture or at the research agency would dare to put their neck on the rope by permitting its imports, claims gossip. Neither Tefera Derebew, the minister, nor his subordinates at EARI appear to be ready to risk going to jail for up to 15 years over this, says gossip.

Thus the pressure to amend the law mounts on Belete and his aides, gossip revealed. In a recent meeting called by Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, the Minister was cuffed for his reluctance to push the agenda forcefully, claims gossip. The headache to Belete, Tefera et al is that the two associations in the cotton industry are very vocal in their protest to allow the imports of BT Cotton.

Unlike the norm where the uproar to laws generated by the EPRDFites comes from the outside, the current bubble is from within, gossip discovered. MPs from all the ruling coalitions are up against this move fearing that changing the law to allow the imports of BT cotton and other GMOs is at the expense of Ethiopia’s biodiversity, gossip claims.

Last week’s 40 points put forth to these MPs demanding explanations was only a follow-up to the 20 questions they had had in the previous session, according to gossip. Apart from their fear of potential harm to the nation’s variety of cotton, however unproductive it could be, at the core of their reluctance to pass the law is their suspicion that this could be a foreign driven agenda, gossip observed.

Such mistrust is not without foundation, claims gossip. Monsanto, an American agrochemical and biotechnology company, manufactures this variety which has genetic elements that kill pests in cotton and is sold for 60 dollars. But it is a company with a strong relationship with the Bill Gates Foundation, a major financier of Ethiopia’s Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA), itself a staunch lobbying force for the opening up and liberalisation of the seeds market in Ethiopia. Its CEO, Khalid Bomba, was a senior executive of the Gate’s Foundation, leading its agricultural programs before he moved back to Ethiopia to run ATA, gossip claims.

Add to this a letter the United States Ambassador to Ethiopia, Patricia M. Haslach, sent to Belete in recent weeks, imploring him about her country’s concerns over the amended bill, which she believes is not relaxed enough. The wariness of MPs in the rank and file of the EPRDFites was not off limits, gossip disclosed.

Published on November 23, 2014 [ Vol 15 ,No 760]



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