50 Years of Distinguished Services in Protecting Ethiopia’s Genetic Wealth
Melaku Worede, (PhD) was born in Addis Ababa in 1936. After obtaining his masters and PhD in Genetics and Breeding from the University of Nebraska in the USA, he returned home and got involved in the planning and establishment of the national Plant Genetic Resources Centre, of which he became director in 1979. He served in that capacity until his retirement in 1993.
In 1989, Melaku was bestowed the Right Livelihood Award, an international award conferred to exemplary leaders who offer practical and exemplary solutions to the urgent and pressing challenges facing the world.
Melaku (Laureate) has been active in the training of several gene bank curators and many other young scientists globally. Thanks to his effort and accomplishment, several initiatives to support biodiversity conservation and utilisation in Africa take the Ethiopian experience as their model.
Biotechnology in general and genetic engineering in particular is an elite technology that helps to increase agricultural productivity. However, most of the debate goes to Ethiopia’s thumb down stance to share the fruit of this technology. Lower agricultural productivity for many years thwarted the country’s prospect for development and exposed a significant proportion of its rural population to food insecurity. Not only has that been the case, the few industries in the country still depend on imports for most of their agricultural raw materials.
Melaku, an international agronomist who served as custodian of the Ethiopian biodiversity for far too long, argue that there is more for Ethiopia to benefit by improving local varieties than taking seeds from multinational companies. He says local research capacity is critical to maintain original varieties and utilising farmer’s knowledge should also be at the centre of improving agricultural productivity.
EBR’s Amanyehun R. SISAY sat down with the seasoned researcher to learn about his career trajectory, opinion on the use of improved seeds and discuss about his overall assessment of agriculture in Ethiopia. The following is an excerpt.
Tell me about your childhood?
I was born in April 1936, here in Addis Ababa. At that time, there was war and chaos, because Italy had invaded Ethiopia. So my family had to leave Addis Ababa. Five years later, we came back and I started elementary school. Then, I moved to Ambo and joined the Ambo Agricultural School.
Was that what sparked your interest in agricultural research?
Partly yes! My first exposure to agricultural science at the then Ambo Agricultural School, added to that. That continued throughout my training programmes at Jimma and Haremaya colleges.
Foreign professors and scientists that were seconded by the Oklahoma State University in the United States played a key role in inspiring my interest in agriculture and research in the field. Previous to that, there were many German expats who played a ground breaking role.
After graduating from Haramaya, I went back again to Ambo and thought chemistry and soil sciences at Ambo Agricultural School.
Then I went to the United States, University of Nebraska, for my master’s in agronomy (genetics and plant breeding). Upon my return, I joined the then Jimma Agricultural School and taught chemistry and soil sciences [for sometime]. That was when I also did some collection of certain crop varieties and did research on that.
Three years later, I joined the then Department of Agriculture at Asmara, then Eritrean province. There were some Italian scientists and other experts leaving the country. So, I was summoned to replace the head of research in that province. There were eight research stations in several places in Eritrea, which were developed by the Italians, later by the British and the local people. That gave me a unique opportunity to do researches in the area of crop improvement for four years.
Due to the drought that prevailed mostly in the northern part of Ethiopia and other places down south, there was a big challenge to crop production and livelihood security. At that time, my research was focused on finding drought resistant crop varieties.
In the course of my stay in Eritrea, I was offered a scholarship to study Genetics and Plant Breeding at the postgraduate level in the famed Swedish Institute of Genetics and Plant Breeding.
Upon finishing my advanced diploma course, I came back to Asmara and continued doing researches on drought resistant crops, which were greatly enhanced by the training there as well as the Drought Resistance Research Programme I initiated and came back much better equipped.
How did you become interested in genetics?
I was already exposed to genetics when I was doing my undergraduate studies in Haremaya. This continued throughout my advanced trainings and works locally and abroad.
What was the most pressing challenge in improving agricultural productivity at that time?
The issue of raising productivity without seriously jeopardising the existing biodiversity in the country of which Ethiopia enjoys a premium place as an epicentre of origin and diversification of many crop types was the challenge
There is a surge in population pressure in Ethiopia, climate change is looming large, and land fragmentation is also an issue. There are two things we have to address: ensure food security and provide enough raw materials for industries. Within this reality, is it possible to preserve diversity in one hand and upscale productivity at the same time?
It’s possible, but it’s not without challenges. We need to seriously look into the already available options. Perhaps, one major option in this regard is to enhance the existing local varieties also known as farmers’ varieties. We can add values to upscale the yield potential as well as other desirable characteristics while still preserving the diversity that is inherent in such materials. The ability of the local crop varieties to survive climatic and other pressures is crucial in sustained productivity over changing situation and growing conditions in the country.
This is even more significant from the standpoint of finding crops which resists drought, other climatic challenges and stresses. With the advent of radical climatic change the world is facing now, even the local varieties may greatly suffer from such conditions. This may require looking into the potential that exists in the wild plants.
The technology is in the hands of the more developed nations, while the raw material and biodiversity mainly exist in places like Ethiopia and other developing countries. In the context that the advanced technologies are being developed and being promoted, the risk of losing the resource base in the developing nations is quite high. That’s why extreme caution has to be taken while introducing new technologies and crop varieties to ensure the possible negative impact this might pose on the overall agricultural productivity in the country.
It’s also important to develop our capacity to adopt new and appropriate technologies. And this is already beginning to happen in the country with the several national and regional agricultural teaching and research schools now in progress. Perhaps more important in this regard is the role of the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute in the areas of conservation research and promotion for a wider use of the existing genetic material and that of the private [companies, and international] NGOs investing hugely in the promotion of the local resources.
However, we have to put two major issues in the right perspectives: multinational corporations whose primary interest is profit at any cost to a country’s biodiversity want to expand their activities; on the other hand, countries like Ethiopia have a primary interest of feeding their nations and developing their industries at the same time.
Ethiopia’s research and development agenda must therefore be relevant to the country’s development priorities.
What role did you play in this regard?
I and several other scientists worked towards the creation of awareness in preserving biodiversity. We have done these at all levels in the country. This and other works we continued to do later resulted in the establishment of the Ethiopian Genetic Resource Programme, which at present is known as the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity.
I was director of the institution for 14 years and played a key role in promoting its research and conservation programmes. I played a major role in connecting the laboratory based formal research and genetic resource conservation system to the farmer based informal conservation system, which existed quite for centuries.
In addition to that, we were also engaged in farmers’ variety enhancement with a view of raising crop productivity while also promoting the diversity that has been developed over the centuries. This was greatly facilitated by the initiation of the then Seeds of Survival Programme, which started in Ethiopia and through the years become a global phenomenon.
Despite a whole series of challenges that were facing, such an initiative both at the national and global level has now prevailed as a valuable option in preserving biodiversity in several parts of the world.
I believe the Right Livelihood Award also known as the Alternative Nobel Award took this into considerations to bestow on me the prestigious international award.
What other achievements, recognitions and awards did you get?
Well, we have a number of achievements to mention. In promoting the initiative in Ethiopia to other regions of the world, mainly the rest of Africa, South East Asia, Latin America, Asia and Asiatic countries, we provided training programmes in each of these regions. We also summoned experts from these regions to come to Ethiopia to receive trainings both on farm and off farm. We have conducted similar activities to universities in many countries.
One key role I played in these connections was training post graduate students mostly from African countries at the University of Wisconsin in the United States carried for six consecutive summers.
Other achievements include consultancy activities for various international development agencies including the FAO. I have introduced the Ethiopian approach to conservation, enhancement and effective utilisation of biodiversity at the then Organisation of African Unity, and the European Community in Brussels, among others.
I have been serving as board member and advisor in several continental and global initiatives. I was the founding member and chair of the African Genetic Resource committee. I have also contributed to various scientific publications and reputable academic journals.
You mentioned that many countries have taken useful genetic materials from Ethiopia to include them in their research and development programmes to develop drought, disease and stress resistant crops, which also have other desirable traits. Can you mention a few of these countries?
Many people from different countries were coming and taking different crop samples that were utilised in their respective research programmes. These include barely and caffeine free coffee samples. Canada, the United States, Mexico, Italy, Germany, United Kingdom, Vietnam, Brazil, Costa Rica and several other countries had taken useful genetic materials from Ethiopia.
Did these countries get the samples formally and did they give something in return?
[Some of] these resources were taken long before I was even born through explorers, missionaries and tourists. For most part, the samples were smuggled long before the country established its gene bank and institutionalised the biodiversity conservation works in the country.
To mention one interesting incidence, British missionaries then prisoners during the period of Emperor Tewodros had taken various samples of teff, maize (then known as Bahir Mashila), barley and certain pulses to their country. A member of the family of the late Prof. Pankhurst came to my office when I was at the gene bank to inform me about the presence of these apparently looted resources after the Magdala expedition by the ex-prisoners. These resources were stored at a library in the UK for over hundred years. I still wonder how she managed to get them, but the close family member of Pankhurst brought them all to our gene bank.
At this point I would wish to appreciate this plausible gesture on the part of the Pankhurst family.
Can you mention scenarios where samples taken from Ethiopia were used significantly for economic benefits elsewhere?
The Yellow Dwarf Virus Disease in barley was once a major threat to the barely industry in Europe and North America. The disease was so widespread that the entire beer industry in these regions was in jeopardy until their scientists came to Ethiopia and took samples of [disease resistant] crop from Ethiopia. I dare say, Ethiopia saved American and European beer industries.
American barely farmers alone save USD180 million annually because of a gene they took from Ethiopia and included it in their barely breeding programme. It’s also widely known that coffee from which more than six hundred million people around the world make direct and indirect economic benefit finds its origin in Ethiopia. It’s the same with what’s happening more recently with the expansion of teff production in North America, parts of Europe, India, Vietnam and South Africa.
Ethiopia has also benefited substantially from introductions of various crop types from overseas and now widely grown and diversified in the country.
Let’s talk about the controversies around the expansion of teff production in the rest of the world with particular emphasis to the Dutch company, which entered a commitment to pay levy to Ethiopia in return for owning the license to teff production in Europe and use the crop in research.
My understanding [was that] the Dutch company would pay a levy to Ethiopia, which the company failed to fulfil its commitment in due course. This was partly because they claimed bankruptcy. They also claimed to have transferred the right to a third party.
How do you view the role of science in Ethiopia’s agricultural development?
Well, the employment of science and technology, and where it applies, the novel techniques like biotechnology, which includes genetic engineering, are very important tools for the advancement of any development programme in any country. In agriculture, science alone may not provide us all the solutions in developing any breeding programme to improve productivity. The combined use of scientific knowledge and the time honoured indigenous knowledge system that exists with the farm and rural communities in the country would provide the synergy for sustained productivity of food and commodity crops.
Talking about the synergy between science and indigenous knowledge, what’s your take on how Ethiopia is currently dealing with the issue?
Well, this is only one option, which, I believe, is key to sustain development to benefit from the huge diversity and the knowledge about it in the country. It becomes more significant when we consider the climatic and other environmental changes that will continue to pose serious challenges in ensuring present and future food and livelihood security in the country.
Many institutions including the international scientific community, policy makers and development agencies had serious reservations about the merit and viability of such an approach. However, it’s now gaining a growing recognition and interest globally.
Despite the various initiatives of agricultural research and development in Ethiopia, the country is still in short supply of agricultural products. It is a net importer of food crops and millions of people each year depend on hand-outs for survival. Not only that, our industries, be it textile or leather, hugely depend on imports for most of their raw materials. How come this be the realities of Ethiopian agriculture?
I think this has to do a lot with the agricultural system, which is largely subsistence; although this is gradually changing with the advances that are being made in improving farming practices and use of inputs appropriate to the farming condition in the country.
Furthermore, the high input, high technology based crop varieties that are coming from foreign sources and currently expanding in the country have limitations in respect to sustainability and adoptability to the farming conditions in the country, which includes variations in topography, soil types, land fragmentation and climate (drought, pest outbreak and other stresses).
How about the land policies of the different regimes which never made the farmers the true owners of the land they till?
Of course, I consider this as a major challenge. However, I am more of a science person with very limited exposure to policy issues such as this. I also lack the facts and figures to substantiate any argument on the issue.
Productivity of improved seeds on the farmers’ land is usually less than half of their productivity at plots of research centres. Why?
Research is experimental. It takes place under well-defined and controlled management system and objectives. This isn’t the case with farming, where the situation is quite different and production takes place under prevailing conditions and farming system.
You retired a long time ago; what do you do in your leisure time?
I do readings and swimming. I often travel overseas to deliver lectures at universities, research conferences and workshops. I am a founding fellow of the Ethiopian Academy of Sciences although I don’t actively participate in the activities of the Academy lately due to physical limitations. However, I still [advise my colleagues there], local and foreign communities in biodiversity and plant breeding. EBR