Tadesse Daba, (phD) Director of Biotechnology Research at EIAR
Tadesse Daba (PhD) is Director of Biotechnology Research at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), where he worked for over 20 years. He holds a PhD in Enzyme Biotechnology from Kyoto University, japan. Apart from witnessing the state of biotechnology in labs around the world, especially in USA and Europe, Tadesse currently works with major biotechnology institutions in Africa, including: the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) based in Kenya, International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT), International Potato Center (CIP), and Michigan State University, among others. Tadesse underlines GMO is the best and safest instrument for countries like Ethiopia to detach from the vicious circles of poor agricultural output and food insecurity.
What is your view on GMO?
Ethiopia’s population will double in a short time. Our natural progress in agricultural productivity is not sufficient to address the growing food insecurity in Ethiopia. Genetic modification is the safest technology. I am not pro-GMO, but I’m liberal about it. In Agenda-21, in the 1990s, the UN recommended the use of GMO for developing countries.
Opting to use GMOs is not opting to be enslaved by GMO companies. We are not enslaved by fertilizer and pesticide companies. GMO is alternative technology. Nobody is forcing anybody. It is guaranteed and proven safe. EIAR gives critical attention to GMO and works on it cautiously.
There are organic, non-organic and GMO agricultures. Organic harvest is cultivated without any manmade inputs like fertilizers, pesticides or improved seeds. Currently, we use fertilizers and pesticides. Ethiopia’s agriculture is neither organic nor GMO.
GMO was consumed first in 1996. Over the last five years alone, GMO increased global agricultural productivity by 113Pct or 311-million-ton additional output. According to a 2018 research, GMO generated USD186 billion additional revenue for global agriculture. Normal hybridization and selection mechanisms boost productivity. GMO creates specific qualities in agriculture, minimizing the use of pesticides and fertilizers. This reduces agricultural expense, losses and indirectly increases productivity.
GMO is not a threat or bad for humans. In Ethiopia, many malnourished children are served imported nutritious foods made of GMO. We are already feeding our children. People take medications directly into their blood. However, they resist GMO food that is digested. Insulin is GMO. Many enzymes, additives and many inputs incorporated into medicines and consumption products are developed by GMO technologies.
The EIAR works on the science aspect of GMO. Globally, however, the politics part prevails. Some groups make it political and even relate it with religion. There are heavily funded anti-GMO groups. Companies engaged in the production of organic and inorganic seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and chemicals financially support these groups. These are market rivals of GMO companies. They want to sell pesticide chemicals by pushing GMO out of the market. The wide adoption of GMOs would obviously make pesticide chemicals irrelevant.
I know many Ethiopians working in Monsanto. Monsanto’s biggest income is generated from sales of hybrid seeds, not GMO. No company has become super rich with GMO income. Hybrid seed business and sales of its accessories like pesticides generate way more income.
The argument that GMO producing companies sale seeds that do not reproduce to make sure that farmers buy the seed every time they sow is fabricated by anti-GMO groups. There is Genetic use of Termination Technology. When a seed is about to germinate, blocker gene is activated and toxin gene is expressed. So the embryo germinates. The Genetic use of Termination Technology enables the blocker gene to be activated. If the blocker gene fails to block the toxic gene when embryo is activated and the seed is about to germinate, the embryo dies. A law ratified in 2006 heavily penalizes selling such seeds. Monsanto, [an American agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation founded in 1901, which was acquired in 2018 by Bayer, a German multinational pharmaceutical and life sciences company and one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world], has been accused of breaching this rule many times but it has been found to be baseless and fabricated. Seeds fail, but not because they have terminator gene. Farmers have to buy GMO seed every year because the seed is hybrid, not because it is GMO. Hybrid seed must be bought and replaced every year.
Ethiopia has surplus capacity in biotechnology. There is EIAR, Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute (EBI), Ethiopian Biotechnology Institute (EBTI)and Environment, Forest and Climate change Commission (EFCCC). Ethiopia has many professionals in biotechnology. We developed systems to identify GMO seeds without genome sequencing facility. GMO transformation is copied from nature. Without the bacteria gene, GMO is just a natural organic variety. The bacteria gene cannot reproduce and create gene flaw or any other complications. Brazil has the largest biodiversity in the world. Brazil is also among top GMO using countries.
Accordingly, we are testing two GM maize varieties that resist drought and pests. When the test proves good enough, we (EIAR) will request for EFCCC’s approval to release. So far, we are not convinced by the performance of Bt maize. GMO is not the main tool to increase productivity but resist pests. Confined Trial result of Enset is very promising. It will be released for open farming soon. The GMO Enset will not affect other Enset varieties. Gene flaw happens only through pollination. Enset is consumed before it pollinates. Even for pollinating crops, GM is farmed far enough from indigenous crops. The transformation of Enset to GMO is being undertaken by our own experts. Once the sweet pepper gene is encoded into Enset, it reproduces by cloning.
The variety is approved by our National Seed Releasing Committee. Seeds are approved after passing big debates where scientists argue and defend. In the labs, we planted GMO and non GMO cotton. Then we released the ball warms to both plants. The Bt cotton killed the ball warms in 46 hours. But the non-GMO cotton was eaten by the warms. We tested Bt cotton for two years in confined areas. We also developed Bt cotton safety procedures, compiled in 700 pages. We ensured Bt cotton has no impact on butterflies, other insects, abortion cases on milk cows, goat and sheep. The safety assessment data was finally signed by the Ministry of Agriculture and approved by EFCCC. The National Biosafety Advisory Committee, which comprises of Universities, EBI, Environmental Protection Institute, Ethiopian Food and Drug Administration (EFDA) , Civic Society and other reputable institutions, also approved the safety assessment data. They finally presented the data to EFCCC, attesting that it does not pose environmental threat.
Ethiopia shifted from a GMO denouncing to promoting country between 2009 and 2015. What was the reason behind the sudden change of policy?
Strong anti-GMO critics cannot succeed in banning GMO forever. GMO is purely a scientific issue. The only tool anti-GMO groups have, for the time being, is scaring consumers off. They cannot disprove GMO. Tewoldebirhan Gebreegziabher (PhD) did not denounce GMO but argued safety and capacity should come first. No educated person denounces GMO. We have no logic to reject GMO. Our concern is maximizing Ethiopia’s national benefit from GMO. I get no penny personally.
We customized our law with the Cartagena protocol, which demands ensuring the protection of indigenous biodiversity from any adverse effects of GMO. You import GMO only if it benefits you. GMO was imported illegally to Ethiopia. It was smuggled through borders or imported unknowingly. We discourage GMO because the law must be obeyed, not because GMO damages humans. It is difficult to prohibit GMO just by writing ‘it is prohibited’ on paper.
Ethiopia’s GMO adoption process was not secret. GMO farms are open in USA and Europe. In Melkasa or other agricultural research centers where GMO is being tested, we installed danger fences. Guards ensure nobody enters and takes out a single leaf to the open world.
Why is GMO promoted in developing countries while advanced countries are banning it?
In USA, everyone consumes GMO daily. Over 83Pct of maize, soy bean, cotton and other crops are GMO. GMO cotton seed is fed for milk cow. Edible oil is also made of GM cotton seed. Over 90Pct of GMO soy bean from Latin America is consumed in Europe. Ethiopia is late.
Europe approved GMO and it is currently using 202 GMO varieties. There are over 50 GMO varieties in china’s market. Japan also consumes GMO products. The European Commission conducted a biosafety research for 15 years costing USD64 million. Many high-profile European scientists secretly engaged in the research and proved the safety of GMO. Finally, the European Commission approved GMO as having no side effect. WHO did the same. They approved that non-GMO and GMO varieties have no difference.
Negative argument is always powerful. Wrong information is affecting GMO. Cancer has no relation with GMO. EBR