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Ethiopia’s acceptance of GMOs turns decades of Pan-African environmental leadership on its head: Thanks to Abiy Ahmed!

23 Apr

Posted by The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)

by Teshome Hunduma*


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).

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.

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.

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.

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