Commentary: Ethiopia’s acceptance of GMOs turns decades of pan-African environmental leadership on its head

A small local vegetable market

Teshome Hunduma

Addis Abeba, April 23/2020 – In 2015, the government of Ethiopia opened up the country to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) by loosening the safeguards built into the 2009 biosafety law that were meant to protect against the risks posed by GMOs, and in 2018 approved commercial cultivation of Bt-cotton. Despite this, there has been limited public debate or media coverage on this issue. Yet, this decision breaks with decades of public policy in Ethiopia and can have major implications for Africa as a whole.

The move has recently been praised in a report published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Service in February 2020: “approval of commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) insect-resistant cotton (Bt-cotton) and confined field trail on GM maize can be taken as an effort to improve agricultural productivity using modern agricultural tools.” Pleased with the government’s deeds, the report went on to state that the country’s “adoption of Bt-cotton not only has [high] economic importance but [is] also expected to have [a] positive influence on the acceptance of this technology in the region.” Blaming the government for its past precautionary approach to GMOs, the report says Ethiopia is now on track “especially considering that a decade ago the country was at the forefront of the anti-GMO movement in Africa.”

In my opinion, the USDA’s appreciation of Ethiopia’s policy change is driven by a strategic interest for the United States and American multinationals to use Ethiopia as a springboard to expand GMO cultivation in Africa. Ethiopia’s uncritical and hasty approval of GMOs can have consequences for the country’s biodiversity, public health, and the socio-economic conditions of smallholder farmers.

Two scenarios are possible to envisage. On the one hand, given Ethiopia’s role as a Pan-African leader, the opening up of Ethiopia to GMOs can lead to similar policy shifts elsewhere (as hoped for by the USDA). On the other hand, Ethiopia’s Pan-African reputation and leadership can be questioned by those who are aware of the potential risks GMOs pose for the environment, as well as the negative implications of the control of agricultural inputs by a few multinationals.

Prior to 2015, Ethiopia resisted the use of GMOs for many years, taking a keen interest in global environmental negotiations and playing a key leadership role within the African Group. Among others, Ethiopia (through its former chief negotiator, Dr. Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher.) played a key role in the international negotiations that led to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which was adopted in 2000 and entered into force in 2003. The protocol was hailed by African countries and environmental groups as an international mechanism to protect the safety of the environment, human health and the quality of socio-economic and cultural conditions from potential risks arising from use of GMOs. Many African countries rushed to sign and ratify the Protocol and developed restrictive national laws to domesticate it, using precautionary principles.

As a foundation for its GMO regulatory system, in 2009 Ethiopia enacted a highly restrictive biosafety law that prohibited the deliberate release of GMOs into the environment. By passing this law, Ethiopia proved to itself and crop diversity enthusiasts that it was protecting its uniquely high crop diversity from GMO contamination and genetic erosion. Furthermore, this was in harmony with a law (Proclamation No.123/1995) prohibiting patents on plants and animals and a law (Proclamation No. 481/2006, later amended to Proclamation No.1068/2017) establishing farmers’ rights to save, re-use, exchange and sell seeds of all kinds from their produce. On the ground, Ethiopia has the biggest national genebank in Africa, which was established in 1976. As of June 2019, the national genebank in Addis Abeba has conserved about 86,599 samples of seeds of over 100 species of plants (mainly food crops) that have been collected from all over the country. In two field genebanks, the country has conserved 5,644 samples of coffee plants.

The restrictive laws in Ethiopia were developed to protect smallholder farmers from becoming indebted to and dependent on multinational corporations for seeds. The multinationals enjoy the privilege offered to them by the World Trade Organization (WTO) –of which Ethiopia is not a member – to control the agricultural inputs including seeds through large global markets and international rules (e.g. patents on GMO seeds). Farmers are not allowed to re-use patented GMO seeds saved from their harvest and must instead buy seeds from the companies every planting season. The Multinationals can even sue farmers if they find genes from their patented GMO seeds (e.g. maize) in farmers’ indigenous crops fields. This is against the “’polluter pays principle”, where companies whose GMOs contaminate farmers’ fields are supposed to compensate farmers. This was what the GOE aimed to avert by passing a highly restrictive law towards approval of GM crop cultivation in the past. The USDA report described Ethiopia as the “vanguard of [the] anti-GMO movement in Africa by working with [the] African Union and drafting the restrictive African Model law” for its actions. In contrast, environmental groups and African countries hailed the Ethiopian leadership as farsighted action for sustainability.

The government’s recent opening up of the country to GMOs is degrading this reputation. It is also worrisome. According to the USDA report, Ethiopia has also approved a confined field trail of disease-resistant enset (Ensete ventricosum) in addition to GM maize and commercial cultivation of Bt-cotton. Enset, commonly called “false banana” is a native crop to Ethiopia. Together with teff (Eragrostis tef) and coffee (Coffea arabica), enset constitutes the country’s cultural keystone crop species with which Ethiopian cultural identity and economy is strongly linked. An attempt to genetically modify and release enset for commercialization requires a high-level of precaution. This is important because there are no independent studies which show improved yield, disease-resistance nor socio-economic benefits for smallholder farmers from use of GM crops compared to conventionally bread varieties. For example, Bt-cotton failed in Burkina Faso due to loss over time of its insect-resistant traits and yield potential. This has incurred economic losses for farmers due to high prices for seeds and associated agrochemicals. Besides, farmers were not able to use the seeds for food due to lack of confidence about its safety for their health. Similar experiences have been documented in India.

Even more troubling is the weakness of Ethiopia’s regulatory system, as many people are already consuming GM foods without knowing what they buy from food stores. According to the report “Ethiopia does import processed agricultural products such as soybean and corn oils, as well as breakfast cereals made from GM ingredients.” The report adds, “some food aid commodities, like corn-soy blend, which are GM products [used] for school feeding and humanitarian programs, [are] allowed to come to the country under a special waiver.” This clearly shows a regulatory vacuum and lack of accountability to inform the public on the kind of foods they buy from suppliers. In my opinion, before introducing GMOs to Ethiopian agriculture, a strong regulatory system should be in place, public research should be capacitated, and studies of GMOs’ socioeconomic values should be conducted by an independent body. To my knowledge, none of these are currently good enough in Ethiopia.

Contrary to US optimism of Ethiopia’s adoption of GMOs, I see the opposite. If Ethiopia does not demonstrate why the benefits of GMOs for African smallholder farmers and industry exceed the risks, it will lose its Pan-Africanist leadership position in the environmental issues. Post Adwa victory, in the 1920s a West African nationalist newspaper stated that, “… when we speak of our prospects, we speak of the prospect of the entire Ethiopian race. By the Ethiopian race we mean the sons and daughters of Africa scattered throughout the world.” Ethiopia is a symbol of independence and resistance against colonialism in Africa and has earned a reputation for organizing African unity in many areas including the New Partnership For Africa’s Development (NEPAD), and the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP). It may appear that Ethiopia will lead GMO adoption as the US hopes. But the reality is that Africans know that GMOs are not welcome in many parts of the world, including by member states of the European Union. “Why in Africa?”, is and will be many people’s question. And it is this question that will undermine Ethiopia’s position as a Pan-African leader on environmental issues.

Before concluding, I would like to draw attention to the following statements in USDA’s report that illustrate the lack of awareness and regulatory protections in Ethiopia:

  • Ethiopia does not have uniform monitoring and testing mechanisms to detect GMO products.
  • Ethiopia has no low-level presence policy — [i.e., specifying the maximum amount of GMO ingredients that is allowed in food items].
  • Ethiopia now appears to have broken from its past position and approved the environmental release of Bt-cotton and research trials on biotech maize. This paradigm shift, however, has not resulted in changes to the Africa Model Law, nor does the GOE appear to be actively promoting the technology in international fora, such as Codex.
  • There are no officially known active campaigns to discourage or scare consumers from eating food products containing GMO ingredients. This is in part because there is little consumer awareness of this technology combined with the fact that there are so few foods in the marketplace that are made from GE crops.

When coming to power, Prime Minister Abiy encouraged all sectors of society to contribute and participate in public debate and policy-making. In this spirit, this piece intended to encourage civil society, policy makers, farmers organizations and scholars to draw their attention to Ethiopia’s changing position on GMOs and agricultural development, putting the needs of Ethiopia’s and the African continent front and center. AS


Editor’s Note: Teshome Hunduma is PhD research fellow at Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He can be reached at: The opinions expressed in this commentary are author’s.

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