Ethiopia: New Forum Seeks to Prune GMO Law
By Wudineh Zenebe
April 27, 2010
Consultative Forum established on Wednesday, April 14, 2010, at the Desalegn Hotel, Cape Verde Street, has a plan to sway the federal government into reconsidering the overlooked bio safety law.
The main aim of the forum is to change some elements of the bio safety law, which was endorsed on July 7, 2009. The law allows GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to be imported for research purposes. But when the products are allowed to enter the country for public use, if any problem occurs, the researchers who recommended its use could land up to 15-year prison terms.
Another point of concern is that the implementation of the bio safety law was given to the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), which is feared to be more averse towards GMOs because of its environmental concerns.
The seven members of the forum include Ethiopian Cotton Producers, Ginners, and Exporters Association; private investors such as Amibara Agricultural Development Plc; Addis Abeba University; and the Ethiopian Biological Society.
The forum lead by Aseffa Aga, general manager of the association, has tried to develop the kind of materials that the forum can use to lobby and convince the government of its positions, including Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
The initiative came from Tilahun Zeweldu (PhD), regional coordinator for the USAID's Agricultural Biotechnology Support Project II, based in Uganda, who is also working closely with the US based Monsanto, one of the leading agro-chemical producers in the world. Monsanto is also a pioneer in GMO production.
"The law should be reconsidered," said Tilahun. "This is not a workable law."
On July 7, 2009, Parliament endorsed five bills in just one day along with the most controversial bill ever to pass, the antiterrorism law, which the representatives deemed the most important and debated on at length.
Away from such controversy and with hardly any debate the bio safety bill passed into law under Proclamation 655.
Ironically, the bill on bio safety did not even go to the Parliament's Natural Resources Standing Committee as it ought to. Instead it was proposed as a motion and adopted with 343 votes in favour and eight abstentions.
The ratification of this bio safety law disappointed researchers, investors, and businesses.
"I am afraid to begin research on GMOs," said Geremew Terefe (PhD).
He is one of the senior researchers in the Agricultural Research Centre under the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MoARD).
"If anything [of negative consequence] should arise, the researcher goes to jail for 15 years, according to the new law," he said.
Ethiopian Cotton Development is cultivating 110,000ht of land, currently. However, the MoARD has plans to expand this size to 500,000ht within the next five years because Ethiopian textile and garment factories need more raw materials for their production.
The government has a plan to earn one billion dollars from the export of textiles and garments. However, the country's cotton plantations are plagued by 68 types of pests that have been identified so far.
Cotton, according to Emiru Seyoum (PhD), a researcher in the Department of Biology at AAU, is a very vulnerable plant.
"We are spraying different kinds of pesticides to increase production," said Solomon Ayalew (PhD), general manager of Hiwet Agricultural Mechanisation Plc.
The company cultivates 10,000ht of land in Amhara Regional State.
"We are suffering under increased production costs," said Solomon. "And we cannot do this indefinitely. We need to use genetically modified or Bt cotton, which is more cost effective."
The genetically modified cotton is resistant to pests, according to Zerihun Desalegn (PhD), breeder and agronomist at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) under MoARD.
"In order to get better products and minimise costs of production, we should use GMOs," he said.
The Ethiopian government has ordered studies, on genetically modified cotton from the Ethiopian context, to begin.
The seeds, imported from India, have already arrived at Horer Agricultural Research Centre in the Afar Regional State. The researchers responsible are not happy with their job, because of the law, according to a source close to this programme.
The government body responsible to exercise this law is the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA).
The forum members argue that the EPA has taken into consideration only environmental factors and nothing else, making the new law impractical for researchers and investors.
However, Belete Geda, who is a biodiversity team leader and bio safety project coordinator at the EPA, supports the stand taken by the authority.
"GMOs are dangerous to everything and should therefore be handled with care," he said. "If we hand this responsibility over to the sector ministry, it may be abused."
The controversy is expected to continue between the forum and the EPA.
Ethiopia is the only country in east Africa free of GMOs and the EPA management has every intention to stay on this track. But investors along with the suppliers are to lobbying top officials, including the Prime Minister, for some leeway.
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