By Hiwote Bekele and Selam Nicola
Recently, Ethiopia reversed its two decade long anti-GMO stance and approved trials for commercialized cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are organisms whose genetic material has been altered in a manner that is not natural. The report issued by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Foreign Agricultural Services states that the approval will aid Ethiopia in the continuous food security challenges and enable the country to feed the population at large. Though Ethiopia has been impressively resistant to GMOs in the past, the country approved and cultivated BT-Cotton in 2019, an insect and pest resistant-genetically engineered cotton seed. This time around, drought tolerant and pest resistant WEMA-TELA Maize as well as Enset or False Banana will be cultivated. Animal genetic engineering, on the other hand, is in the early stages, but will also be rolled out in the foreseeable future. While the rollout of GMOs in Ethiopia seems like a convincing solution to address food insecurity, it may have detrimental long term health, social and economic impacts.
Genetic engineering of plants has existed for thousands of years, as humans have bred and cross bred crops to have certain desired outcomes, i.e, sweeter fruits. Modern day GMOs, however, are artificially engineered by the removal or insertion of specific genes in a plant to alter the genetic composition of organisms. To be exact, the first genetically modified food was created in 1994. As the development of GMOs is only a few decades old, there is no conclusive consensus among experts that GMOs are a safe alternative to conventionally and/or organically grown food, and much more research is needed to thoroughly understand the comprehensive impact of GMOs. For instance, a recent study analyzing thirty studies on the effects of genetically modified plants concluded that results on potential GMO toxicity were inconsistent. In addition, the longest running study was done over a period of just ninety days, which is too short of a period to make conclusions about any long term health effects of GMOs.
Glyphosate is the main active ingredient in the RoundUp pesticide, which is the most commonly used pesticide for GMO crops. Use of glyphosate is controversial since its effect on health is highly debated. Earlier this year, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that there are no concerns to human health if glyphosate is used according to label and that it is unlikely a human carcinogen. To the contrary, however, evidence shows glyphosate residue in foods increases risks of chronic health conditions like cancer, autism, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and many more. A meta analysis study published in 2019 found that a group of individuals with the highest exposure to glyphosate had a 41% increase of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. Since then, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified glyphosate as a carcinogen by mechanism of genotoxicity, meaning that glyphosate can cause damages or mutations to DNA. Other studies have found links between prolonged glyphosate exposure and improper function of the Thyroid-Stimulating Hormone (TSH), a hormone that is essential in fetal growth and brain development. A disruption of TSH’s function in pregnant women can increase incidences of autism in the offspring. These chronic health conditions can be extremely costly in the long term both in terms of health expenditure and in the availability of a productive and healthy society. For instance, in the US alone, the annual cost of allergies exceeds USD18 billion. In countries like Ethiopia, where the health infrastructure is underdeveloped with a per capita health expenditure of USD25, a rise in chronic health conditions will be extremely detrimental to the effective development of the country.
Moreover, a considerable amount of the studies presenting GMOs as a safer alternative for human consumption are performed or sponsored by biotech companies that produce GMOs. A study examining glyphosate residue in Roundup-ready crops found that two third of the studies analyzed were performed by biotech industries. Not only does this pose a conflict of interest issue, but also contaminates the validity and credibility of the pro-GMO research within the field .
The risks associated with pesticides containing glyphosate are not only a concern for human health, but also for the environment and the natural flow of the ecosystem. Glyphosate pesticides disrupt growth in honey bees by targeting their gut microbe and making them vulnerable to opportunistic parasites. As such, glyphosate plays a major role in the rapid decline of bee colonies. Not only does this disrupt the pollination process, but also poses a threat to global food security given that agricultural production depends heavily on pollinators like bees. Likewise, increased GMO use is a major threat to the biodiversity of organisms that make ecosystems more resilient and adaptive to environmental changes. A reduction in plant and animal genetic diversity increases organisms’ vulnerability to environmental changes and infestations. Namely, during the Irish potato famine, an invasive pathogen wiped out a massive amount of potato plants. This catastrophic event was even more exasperated because most, if not all, of the destroyed potato plants were clones of each other.
Just as starkly concerning, if not more, is the lack of diversity and depth in the research concerning the economic consequences of GMOs and the structure of the GMO market itself. The biotechnology industry responsible for the production and patenting of GMOs is an imperial oligopoly, with just four companies owning 60% of the market. This effectively leads to expensive seed prices and limited choices for farmers who have to undergo licensing regulations and pay fees in order to use GMO seeds. Furthermore, to ensure farmers purchase a new batch of seeds every year, the biotechnology industry continuously lobbies policy makers to enforce regulations that make it difficult for farmers to save seeds. To be exact, Bayer AG, one of the largest companies responsible for crop science research and production, including GMOs and pesticides, spent USD12 million lobbying in 2018, a 650% increase since 1998.
More recently, the industry introduced Genetic Use Restriction Technology (GURT), also known as suicide or terminator seeds, to regulate a one time use of seeds by farmers. This technology genetically sterilizes second generation seeds, making them infertile. As opposed to traditional farming, where farmers can save seeds year after year to minimize their expenses, GMO seeds have to be bought every year or else, farmers will be liable for license infringement. Although Ethiopia’s most recently authorized Genetically Engineered (GE) projects are through a public-private company known as the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), Monsanto, a biotech subsidiary of Bayer AG, is actively involved in the molecular genetics and breeding process of the GMOs, and has exclusive rights to the commercialization and production of the said seeds, meaning Ethiopian farmers will still be required to purchase seeds every year. As Arefayni Fanataye puts it more precisely, “The use of GMO seeds yokes farmers to corporate power, requiring ongoing purchases from multinational companies that have control over the technology through intellectual property rights.” This brings a new and unsustainable expense to farmers, especially for small scale farmers who previously utilized traditional seed storing methods. For countries like Ethiopia, with no revenue capacity to meaningfully subsidize seed prices for farmers, GMO adaptation can widen the inequality between domestic wealthy large scale farmers and marginalized small farmers in the country.
What’s more, the costliness of GMOs might even hurt Ethiopian farmers in the global market. Developed countries, unlike developing nations, have the economic capacity to provide price subsidies for their farmers, making the production process a lot more affordable. Most notably, the US, EU, and China provide the largest cotton price subsidy to farmers and as a result, farmers have access to cheaper production means, making it possible for them to mass produce cotton at competitive rates. These agricultural aids and subsidies from developed countries distort the global commodity market and make it extremely unprofitable for farmers who do not get price subsidies from governments. As aforementioned, countries like Ethiopia do not have the revenue or income to provide significant price subsidies to farmers, so even though farmers might potentially be saving water or increasing their yields with GM seeds, it is unlikely they’ll profit in the global market. We’ve seen this playout in India during the Green Revolution; the Indian government approved the use of high yielding seeds without providing substantial price subsidies to farmers. Consequently, farmers ended up incurring large debt they could repay due to the unprofitable and unsustainably competitive nature of the global market structure.
Unequivocally, food insecurity and low crop yields are urgent and pervasive threats requiring immediate solutions in Ethiopia. Although at face value, GMOs seem like an instant solution to Ethiopia’s food crisis, the negative consequences that are often hidden behind the influence of powerful corporations can be destructive to the biodiversity of the environment and the overall productivity and equality of the population. In addition, the USDA states labeling GMOs is a requirement in the adaptation to protect and ensure consumers’ right to choose; however, the Ethiopian government does not have the capacity of labeling GMOs at this time, which poses an ethical dilemma. Not only is there a lack of financial capacity for labeling, but much of the population rely on purchasing food from informal traditional markets, which present a great challenge in regulating GMOs once introduced to the market. Potential alternatives to GMOs do exist, and one alternative is increasing production capacity for and distribution of natural pest-repellants and bio-pesticides like Acetic acid to decrease crop loss due insects and pests. Crop rotation and biofertilizers increase yields while also resisting pests and revitalizing soil nutrients. Furthermore, expanding research on traditional pest and weed control methods will be beneficial for the country in the long run.
Hiwote Bekele is an Environmental Health Expert and Educator, someone who is deeply passionate about addressing health through creating awareness and empowering others about various environmental exposures. Hiwote earned her Master of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Minnesota and her Bachelors in Biology and Peace and Conflict Studies from the College of Saint Benedict. Hiwote has participated in various global health projects in East Africa. Her most recent project was implementing a global health case competition for undergraduate students in Kigali, Rwanda with The University of Minnesota One Health workforce.
Selam Nicola holds a B.A. in Economics from Carleton College. Her academic interests include international trade and sustainable economic development practices. Having lived in both Ethiopia and the US, her passions are deeply inspired by and rooted in her personal experiences with the radically different ways through which different economies operate. Throughout her time in undergrad, Selam was engaged in multiple agricultural development studies in Ethiopia and India. Selam currently works in finance where she conducts Emerging Market Macroeconomic analysis.