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Rejoinder: Opposition to gene-edited teff unfounded, misleading

Researchers [in Bishoftu] are working to develop new teff varieties with favorable characteristics. Here they compare the seeds of new lines at the Center’s experimental field. Photo: Miklos Gaspar

By Teshome Hunduma (PhD) @TeshomeHunduma

Addis Abeba – I read a recent article about gene-edited teff – also called “aggressive gene-edited variety”, with great interest. If you have read or will read it, you will not avoid a head shake as you conclude each sentence in this article. To me, most of the contents are unfounded and misleading. When I think of gene-edited teff that will save my father and his friends in rural Ethiopia more than 25% crop loss per annum (in my experience, perhaps up to 40% loss from the windy highlands of Shewa alone), I find it an incredible technological success.

As a staple crop for millions in Ethiopia, I do not doubt that we need a lodging resistant teff variety for smallholder farmers. I was pleased when the finding about the dwarf gene-edited teff variety was first published in 2022. Brown-seeded lodging-resistant varieties (key tef/daaboo) exist in Ethiopia. But, they fetch the lowest price in the market and most farmers do not grow more than they need for family consumption.

In the above-mentioned article, I read opposition to the gene-edited teff that is unfounded and fallacious. You will find all kinds of bizarre arguments, including arguments that the gene-edited teff can cause cancer and is designed to be resistant to synthetic agro-chemicals. How do we know these things? Remember, we are not even talking about GMOs here; we are talking about gene editing in teff. While the concern regarding cancer in this article is based on some inconclusive studies from the biomedical/sciences based on experiments conducted on mice, there is no evidence for the latter – the claim that gene-edited crops are designed for synthetic agro-chemicals. The article surprisingly blames brain drain (including the author and me) as one of the problems and tries to link everything to make a case. This is not helpful. Let us detach emotions from facts and try to be objective.

I blame the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) and the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority for allowing such unfounded and misleading information to come out. Timely communication, openness, and transparency are needed to fight misinformation. EIAR must provide the background and facts around the gene-edited teff. This issue is not simple. It is a question of national food security.

For instance, EIAR/EPA can communicate about the government’s position/process on approval of the gene-edited teff for cultivation, food, and feed. It is also important to the public, as raised in this article. With all its flaws, this article also raises important intellectual property rights issues -patent issues on the gene-edited teff. Who owns this variety? What is the share of the Ethiopian smallholder farmers who have conserved teff for millennia? The public must be allowed to debate.

I hope this is the beginning of the plant-breeding collaboration between gene-rich Ethiopia and technologically advanced countries. For instance, there is a huge opportunity to save global coffee production with the genes from wild coffee still in the forest. Ethiopia has a huge diversity of wheat, barley, sorghum, among others, for disease resistance that affects their global production.

EIAR deserves applause to start collaborations with other countries and institutions to improve crops, but it needs to communicate what it does in this field, and to explain what it brings for Ethiopia and its poor farmers. For this to happen, there is also a need to build capacity in environmental law to understand the global legal framework for genetic resource exchange, benefit sharing, and communication. AS

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Editors’ Note: Teshome Hunduma (PhD) is a researcher at the Department of International Environment and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He can be reached at teshome.mulesa@nmbu.no

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