By Mekonnen Teshome Tollera
In recent years, the production of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) especially crops has become one of the top national development agendas in Ethiopia.
Genetically Modified (GM) crop experts in their resent study “Challenges and Opportunities of Genetically Modified Crops Production; Future Perspectives in Ethiopia, Review” state “37% reduction in pesticide usage and an increase in yield of over 21% was obtained by cultivating GM Crops, which shows an increase in production and environmental benefit at the same time.”
The study also indicates that Ethiopian economy is dependent on agriculture for food, industrial raw materials such as textile industry and export. “However, despite adopting many kinds of production improvement programs, productivity is still very low. This is a critical concept in fostering innovation to transform agriculture sector for more profit and industrialization in Ethiopia” it added.
In developing GM crops, Ethiopia has made strides in adopting favorable legal instruments and introducing some of globally endorsed GM crops – cotton, maize and Enset.
In 2018, the Ethiopian government authorized plantation of BT-cotton with a view to curb the challenge of bollworm (moth caterpillar that attacks the cotton boll). GM Enset (false banana), which is highly affected by bacterial wilt, is the other crop permitted for contained laboratory research.
I believe the current national effort of adoption and growing of selected high value GM crops in Ethiopian must not be discouraged. I can give some details why Ethiopia should go for GM crops:
GMOs Are Safe
Despite the consistent and wide-spread voicing of unproven “Precautionary Principles” and “probable negative effects” of GMOs like lose of biodiversity, food allergies, toxicity, ntibiotic resistance and the like by proponents of Genetic Engineering, no peer-reviewed and agreed studies across the world confirm that GMO foods are unsafe. Rather dependable research institutes are telling us the other way round – GM foods are safe. For example, recently, having examined hundreds of scientific papers written on the subject, the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine in its report stated: “found no substantiated evidence that foods from GE crops were less safe than foods from non-GE crops.”
Benefits of Genetic Engineering
Genetic Engineering (GE) is an essential scientific tool that addresses the present challenges of humanity such as food security, environmental sustainability, climate change, health care problems and the like. Countries around the world including Ethiopia invest quite a lot of resources to produces genetic engineers to benefit from the scientific process which is now viewed as remarkable outputs of modern education and research.
It is evident that GMOs are helping countries to fight drought and crops insects. The science is now benefiting several thousands of farmers around the world in developing crops that are insect and drought as well as disease resistant. It also enables farmers to produce herbicide tolerant crops and it increases nutritional content of the crops.
Genetic engineering has made several efforts to engineer a wide variety of aesthetic traits in the floriculture industry and speed time to flowering. Development of new varieties through traditional technique methods is very difficult or is not an option if varieties are completely sterile, as in orchids.
The science has also radically improved millions of lives all over the world by helping produce various modern medicines. For example, the production of effective and safe human insulin in bacterial cells is a very remarkable achievement in the history of the global pharmaceutical industry. Previously, diabetic patients were treated with pig insulin. It has also a huge potential in developing laboratory made human organs to effectively conduct transplanting activities on people who might otherwise die due to organ failure as the future holds possible challenges of accessing human organs like kidney and lung by donations from relatives and friends.
The other area transformed by Genetic Engineering is the global industrialization across the world. Cheese-making can be mentioned as a case in point in this regard. Enzymes such as Rennin, a key ingredient in cheese making, were originally isolated from calf stomach. However, it is now exclusively produced by engineered micro-organisms.
Feeding Growing Populations
Many countries in the world are witnessing high population growth at a breakneck pace and exacerbating existed challenges which are even worsened in recent years: chronic hunger. GMO crops could help to relieve this problem by providing increased yields and being more resistant to environmental stressors.
Particularly, the increasing prevalence of drought has prompted the development of crops that are more tolerant of high temperatures. These efforts, however, have afforded mixed results due to the genetic complexity of drought resistance and similar traits. Regardless, continuing to research this type of genetic engineering remains a promising strategy for feeding the world’s growing population.
GE for Environmental Protection
Genetic Engineering plays its own positive role in reducing agriculturally related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, reducing soil erosion and significantly decreasing the use of many toxic agricultural chemicals.
David Zilberman and his colleagues in their study “Agricultural GMOs-What We Know and Where Scientists Disagree” published in May 2018 write: “GE technology can positively affect other components of agricultural emissions, particularly by reducing energy and fossil fuel use and by enabling reduced tillage and no-tillage agricultural practices.”
GMOs Are Not New To Human Being
Ever since human beings began farming activities, they have done genetic modifications while cultivating their foods by selecting peculiar varieties and propagating them. Global scientific studies confirm that genetic modifications take place naturally among wild plants. Assorting seeds from the best looking plants to replant the following year has been a method of manual genetic selection for many years. A variety of DNA analyses of evolutionary genetics show that genes have been transferred among plant species.
According to genetic engineering experts, genes can be transmitted by a parasite or pathogen, such as a virus or a sap-sucking insect. Spontaneous or natural mutations are usually induced in three general ways -radiation, chemical and transpose insertion.
These days, it is also very difficult to avoid GMO foods because any food item with ingredients of corn or soybeans are almost produced with GMO components. In the U.S., more than 90 percent of corn or soybeans are bioengineered and many processed foods are made of these crops. Much of the sugar in the US market is also derived from sugar beets which are mostly genetically engineered.
It is really hard to trace the DNA of highly processed products such as fructose corn syrup of GM ingredients and therefore, the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t force manufacturers to put labels to specify bioengineered foods stuffs. Therefore, people might have reflected stereotypical expression towards GM foods while at the same time consuming them.
Today, globalization highly connected the world in many aspects and people travel a great deal as modern transportation systems are expanding more than ever before. This situation would facilitate both the illegal and legal movement of GM crops and produces.
To this end, for example, farmers from Kenya or Sudan could simply exchange or transport the products to farmers in Ethiopia through the existing border trade or social connections. Therefore, globalization can be one aspect of transportation and the spread of non-regulated Bt-crops.
So far, various evidences and reports from media show that illegal GMO products especially edible oils have penetrated the Ethiopian market. Moreover, we don’t have the capacity as well as appropriate institutions and mechanisms in place to oversee the transportation of GMO products especially via boarder connections.
Building Local capacity
Ethiopia could focus on building local capacity and generating own technologies to avoid the trap of multinational corporations and not to remain in a vicious circle of their marketing interests. To this end, encouraging activities have been underway by public institutions like the Holeta Biotechnology Institute. In addition, the country could also exploit the potential of highly experienced biotechnologists and genetic engineers in the Ethiopian Diaspora who flee their country earlier due to lack of good governance and democracy to build its own capacity in the field and tackle the challenges coming from international multi-national corporations depending on its own GM technologies.
GM Crops Are Expanding
According to the “Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2017” report, 67 countries used biotech crops, out of which 24 (including the two African nations) grew multiple varieties. Global hectarage of biotech crops stood at 189.8 million in 2017, up from 185.1 million in the prior year.
Aside from South Africa and Sudan, 11 African countries – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Swaziland, Tanzania and Uganda -sustained biotech crop research, with 14 traits on 12 crops under various stages of development.
By Mekonnen Teshome Tollera