Some Ethiopian researchers argue that GMO crops are safe and a potential solution for the challenges facing global food production. Climate change, population growth and competition for land are all affecting food supply. Still some question the safety of GMOs. They point out that consuming genetically modified plants may have negative health consequences. To better understand the debate around GMOs, Capital’s reporter Tesfaye Getnet talked with Tadessa Daba (PhD), Director, Agricultural Biotechnology, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR). Tadessa studied agriculture for his BSc and did his MSc (s) in Human Nutrition and in Applied Microbiology. His PhD is in Food Science and Biotechnology (Enzyme Chemistry), he did postdoctoral study on Ethiopian indigenous crops and nutrition. He has been working in EIAR since 2009 at various research positions. Excerpts:
Capital: How safe are GMO foods for human consumption?
Tadessa Daba: I would be comfortable if we start with agricultural biotechnology instead of GMO, which is a single component of agricultural biotechnology. Yes, GMOs are meant for human consumption (there are many GMOs apart for human consumption). They are very safe.
Capital: What is the economic implication of bringing GM into the food system?
Tadessa: Bringing GM into the food system has or would have great economic implication. If we refer to GM crops alone, they were derived to solve biotic problems (disease, lodging, insect, nutritional values etc) and abiotic challenges like drought tolerance, acidity or aluminum toxicity etc. A huge amount of foreign currency is invested every year for chemical pesticides and herbicides every year besides, there is huge productivity loss. There are some GM crops in the world which were to improve the nutritional composition of the crop. Golden rice was invented to improve its beta carotene content, which is a precursor for vitamins A. This vitamin A deficiency may cost a lot if not solved. There are also many enzymes and additives in food and feed processing industries that can be produced though genetic modification. In general, it has huge economic implications.
Capital: If we allow GMOs to exist in our market, will they have an impact on our exports as some countries do trust them?
Tadessa: Sure, it would impact our exports. There are many but if we consider just Bt-cotton (GM crop), it significantly improves our cotton production and avoids chemical pesticide import. This allows us to contribute or satisfy our textile industry raw material needs and export the processed products or we can also export the cotton lint or fiber itself in case of excess production. The amount our country was to spend for pesticides can also be used for other purposes. The acceptability issue is not as such a problem because, GM products are in the market elsewhere in the world and the major cotton exporting countries are mainly producing Bt-cotton for instance.
Capital: To what extent is your institute contributing to food sufficiency target of the country?
Tadessa: Our institute, EIAR has been and being contributing a lot in generating or adopting agricultural technologies that solve agricultural problems in various sectors (crop, livestock, natural resource, mechanization etc). So far, more than thousand varieties of crops that have better biological merits (productivity, quality, disease resistance, etc) have been released from crop alone. Many technologies in livestock, biotechnology (tissue culture) and other sectors have been generated. These, technologies do highly contribute in securing food (nutrition) sufficiency may be even for surplus production had there been proper post releases and utilization systems nationwide.
Capital: What is the position of Ethiopian farmers in using biotechnology products?
Tadessa: In agricultural biotechnology, more than 60 tissue culture protocols have been released so far. Farmers in different regions have been using seedlings (plantlets) of banana, coffee, pineapple, ginger, etc developed through tissue culture. What should be very clear is that GM is a single component of many biotechnological applications hence biotechnology and GM are not equivalent. In livestock, farmers have been using artificial insemination technology for more than a decade to improve animal production.
Capital: There are concerns that if Ethiopia embraces GMO foods it could be harmful. What is your take on this?
Tadessa: There is global controversy on GMOs but as I said the products from GMO is in use elsewhere but production. I think we better gear it to GM crops not the whole GM organisms may be used in food. What should be well noted is that the biosafety issue was first recommended by the scientists who have paved ways for genetic modification or genetic engineering. In GM crops, the gene for the traits required to improve are taken either from soil bacteria (Bacillus thuringiensis) or other crops so far. Countries don’t allow GM products without rigorously checking the safety of the products. I am very confident that the so far released GM crops are very safe.
Capital: Can you explain the processes involved in certifying a GM product as safe?
Tadessa: The biosafety issue of GM products takes a much longer time and investment than for developing the technology. Before beginning the experiment on GM, it is applied to the biosafety regulatory authority for a special permission for research in a confined or contained field or lab conditions. It is very strict that no part or product of this GM can escape from the contained condition. It has rules and procedures with regular monitoring by the regulators. Once, the efficacy of the gene is verified in confined condition, the technology is subjected to food/ feed safety, environmental safety assessment. These assessments are undertaken at a high level laboratories equipped with molecular level test facilities with highly skilled professionals. They also repeatedly do in-vivo double toxicity tests and all the parameters. Genetic uniformity or variability checks that might have happened because of the modification. In general, all the required assessments are done as per specific requirements for many years (up to 10 years). Then the regulatory authority deregulates the gene or the trait for general release or commercialization. There are different requirements by different countries. The technology developer and the biosafety authority are responsible if any risk happens because of the GM after release. In GM, what is done and what is expected is clearly known by the scientists.
Capital: There are a lot of challenges with our agricultural system. Is there no other alternative to tackle them other than GMOs?
Tadessa: There is no simple answer for such question. For example, chemical pesticide is an alternative to cotton bollworm. However, the pesticide has to be sprayed repeatedly. It is costly and has environmental and human safety problems. So, the level of alternativeness or effectiveness, cost and other associated issues should be considered along with the technologies. Another example is that there is effective technology against fall army worm in maize through biotechnology but people are using different less effective technologies. The matter is to make efficient, cost effective and easy to use technological choices available to the users. In the use of GM products proper regulation of the biosafety issue should not be compromised always.
Capital: People have this other concern that GMOs will monopolize the seed market and further push the conventional agricultural system into extinction, what are your thoughts?
Tadessa: Again, we just consider GM crops not organisms while talking about seeds. Genetic modification is the technique not a variety of a crop. For instance, Bt gene was introgressed in to cotton to protect the cotton bollworm. It can be in any cotton variety. While we are discussing about technology, we should not just focus on current capacities and scenarios. If we accept the technology, we can gradually develop the capacities and skills so that we can transform or varieties here in the country and use them. Sure, currently, we may depend on the technology owners for seed. However, there are convention hybrid seeds, which we get from other countries even in non-biotech crops. There is also an option to produce the seeds in country in agreement with the technology owners. The cost of the seed is not frustrating as compared to the advantages. This doesn’t induce an extinction of the existing system because we are not deeming to replace the whole system with biotech crops. We just accept GM technologies that would solve agricultural problems that seriously affect our conventional agriculture or improve our agriculture.
Capital: Do you think the Ethiopian Education System (Biotech) is on par with the international levels of education?
Tadessa: This is not special to biotechnology in my suggestion. In all biological fields that require good facility for practical trainings, our education system has limitations. This is associated with infrastructural capacity, which is same for all developing countries. In terms of theoretical knowledge and methodologies, there is not much problem in our system as almost all researchers in the field and instructors in the universities have studied abroad in good laboratories. I hope, we will gradually develop all the necessary capacities and develop practically important technologies in our country in less than 10 years.