Pro-poor GMOs, Anyone?

Coronavirus disrupted the lives of billions across the world. From the superpowers with a huge economic hegemony to countries with less economic interaction with the rest of the world have been hit hard by the deadly virus. Both developed and least developed countries are likely to witness their worst economic recession in more than a decade. Big corporations and SMEs are reporting losses and cutting millions of jobs, exacerbating poverty and unemployment. With businesses across different sectors crumbling, the only hope left seems to be the farming sector as it is in a relatively better shape. It is also imperative to consider this as an opportunity and boost food production, which is unattainable without reforming the farming sector. Fears also exist in Ethiopia that the number of people living in poverty would surge due to the outbreak. Especially at a time like this when the number of people in need of urgent assistance grows alarmingly, raising food production is indispensable.

Moreover, various sources indicate that population and urbanization are expanding rapidly in Ethiopia. More food is needed to feed the growing population. Booming population and expanding urbanization have conspired to decrease land for agricultural cultivation. Unless managed very cautiously, the projection implies where the future hotspot for food shortage would be. The growing number of youth could also potentially become a ‘demographic bomb’ that further fuels social and political instability in the country. The government should emphasize long-term economic prospects, instead of mobilizing the youth for short-term political support.

Faced with a similar challenge, the global community witnessed an extraordinary growth of food production in the era of Green Revolution mainly in the Asian continent. Success in raising productivity and feeding the growing population left the dire predictions of the Malthusian theory, which stated that food demand outpaced actual production, in question.

That success was not achieved through land expansion. Instead, extensive application of innovations in smallholder agriculture was behind the indisputable development. Specifically, the development and use of new varieties that could mature more quickly lay at the heart of the yield improvement along with the sound policy environment that was in place. Access to better quality seeds for food crops has several desirable attributes, while improved genetic potential reduces vulnerability to production risks.

Our seed sector, however, is one of the weakest in providing latest technologies to farmers compared to neighboring countries, including Kenya. Despite its necessity, no specific time when the ‘seed issue’ became the center of discussion pops up to mind in the discourse for agricultural development in Ethiopia. Accordingly, many asked ‘why seeds’, wanted to learn more about innovations along that line and the institutional challenges in the seed sector.

First of all, the claim that “the introduction of GM crops to Ethiopia is the first of its kind in the African continent” is totally wrong. Second, there is lack of consistency on GMO skeptics. Tewolde G. Egziabher (PhD), the key negotiator on bio-safety conventions, said the “amendment has no problem as it is meant only for research purposes” when the parliament amended the GMO law in 2015. However, in his open letter addressed to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed last month, he explained his worry about the government’s decision to allow the cultivation of GMO technologies.

We have also honest and genuine plant breeders and seed sector specialists. Let’s have a favorable playing ground for competing ideas to spar and for the public to judge. As we all know, we still have people who are dying from hunger and malnutrition. If we are working for the sake of Ethiopia, we have to reverse this bad history.

I am afraid some might be guided by self-interest. As Oliver Williamson, the Nobel Prize Winning Institutional Economist, said “opportunists are self-interest seekers with guile.” He was implying that businesses and individuals will sometimes seek to exploit a situation to their own advantage. To respond to dishonest and illogical arguments that lead the public to oppose everything related to biotech breeding is our moral obligation. Some with little or no knowledge of the science and seed sector in the country are misinforming the public about GM crops being a cause for health problems. Current oppositional and combative debate against GM crops is exaggerated and should be replaced with collaborative and professional dialogue. For me, blindly rejecting any technology with suspicion is unscientific. Most of the arguments are bogus and mythical. The sensational reporting seems to deliberately arouse public fear and hysteria.

There are several countries in the African continent that approved the commercial use of GM crops and Ethiopia should not be an island. Instead, it is imperative it emulates the best practices from the front runners to take lesson on the adaptation of the new technology and integrate it with the existing approach. Similarly, the Ethiopian Biotechnology Institute (EBTi) issued a statement clarifying the need to consider biotech products due to current challenges. The statement read: “integrating biotech products with the existing conventional breeding approach is needed more than ever to meet the growing demand for food and exports in line with the country’s bio-safety laws and other related guidelines.” Realization of this scheme requires conducting cost benefit analysis to approve the use of GMO crops as well as its location for long-run consequences.

All in all, the utilization of innovations in agriculture should meet the criteria of sustainability. We cannot sustain life on earth without performing economic activities. Any economic activity (whether production or consumption) has adverse environmental effects. Therefore, striking the balance between economy, environment and society is crucial. To be economically sustainable, breeding innovations must increase food production, income and jobs.

For societal sustainability, innovative tools must be pro-poor and benefit vulnerable communities in reducing hunger and malnutrition. For instance, bio-fortified rice a.k.a “Golden Rice” that comprises Vitamin A has been released in Asia, and its shortage is a public health concern for millions of poor people located in the developing world. To be environmentally sustainable, breeding innovations should safeguard water, soil and air quality as well as protect biodiversity.

Breeding innovations in our agriculture
Although seed innovations are crucial to boost productivity, farmers’ take-up rates of these innovations have been very low in Ethiopia. Findings of a nationally representative survey conducted in 2016 on 7,500 farmers in the high potential areas indicate that only 19Pct of the surveyed farmers used new crop varieties. This implies that the majority of farmers rely on genetically inferior old crop varieties and they benefit very little from breeding improvements. Researchers have documented various bottlenecks that weigh down on farmers’ decision to use the latest seed innovations.

Integrating the technology also requires a supportive policy environment. The government should intervene in markets to make sure that farmers receive adequate price each year for their produce, proving the technologies profitable. There is also a need to educate farmers about innovations, rapidly expand input delivery, and credit systems. Access to finance is crucial for resource constrained small farmers to invest in new technologies.

According to a survey, the capital requirement to purchase improved cultivars is very large because improved varieties cost farmers twice the price of seeds that are accessed in local grain markets. Lack of credit access, hence, poses a significant challenge to invest in improved seed varieties.

Farmers in developed countries like Germany receive attractive subsidies, let alone credit services, from their governments annually. Then, the highly productive one percent of Germans who rely on farming feed the entire population and the surplus is exported. This is a reminder that unless the capacity of farmers is built to muster purchasing power, availability of better seeds is not sufficient on its own. Farmers need to readily start using the seeds.

In addition, the existing approach delivers genetically uniform varieties to all farmers irrespective of their heterogeneities. However, farmers require a range of breeding outputs that meet their varying demands. Another one of the bottlenecks has to do with the endowment effect. While innovations simplify complex real-life situations, people generally do not comply with innovations; instead they irrationally overvalue the benefit of what they owned. Such a “status quo bias” is visible on our “experts” who are opposing GM crops.

In the supply side, liberalization of agricultural markets was the governing policy in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) in the 1980s. One of the major assumptions was that an increased supply of improved varieties can be achieved if a favorable environment is in place for the private sector. Guided by this neoclassical economic assumption, national seed enterprises have been privatized across several African countries.

The government of Ethiopia has sought a similar path to liberalize the agricultural sector since the adoption of the Agricultural-Development-Led-Industrialization (ADLI) strategy in 1993. Any measures by the current government to adopt a completely different path ditching this long process of liberalization would be more concerning than the issue of GMOs. To date, public seed organizations dominate the breeding, seed production and distribution activities across the entire seed value chain in Ethiopia.

Despite the lucrative market potential in Ethiopia, several obstacles pose challenges for the private sector to operate in the seed market. The lack of strong plant variety protection law is one of the major obstacles. This factor emerges from the conflict between seed companies’ motive to invest in breeding and farmers’ desire to replant farm-saved seeds for several seasons. With the absence of strong protection law, farmers can utilize the gains from breeding progress without paying for the use of the seeds in successive seasons. With a strong protection law, firms can force millions of farmers to pay for their breeding effort. With the absence of protection rights, the limited number of private seed companies operating in the country target to supply only hybrid maize varieties to secure sustainable revenue due to the nature of the seed. This is because farmers should pay annually for suppliers to access their seeds.

Domestic private seed enterprises, which rely on public bred varieties, are expanding. Yet only two foreign seed corporations (Pioneer Hi-Bred and SeedCo) are operating in Ethiopia with their own breeding materials. In 2019, however, Corteva Agriscience (one of the biggest global agribusiness companies) has already opened its office in Ethiopia following the footsteps of its subsidiary (Pioneer Hi-Bred).

Controversies with “giant” agribusiness companies
Jack Kloppenberg, Wisconsin University Professor, is a renowned scholar who strongly criticizes the “evils” of the capitalist system in global agribusiness. In his influential book The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnologies, Kloppenberg argued that as long as open pollinated varieties (OPVs) remain the dominant technology (OPVs are reproducible in comparison with hybrid seeds), farmers retain a handful of farm saved seeds from their own harvest to replant in the next season.

In this case, control over the means of production is completely in the hands of the direct producers, who are farmers, and rent-seeking firms have no incentive to exploit them. In the expanding capitalist system, however, farming is converted from a self-sufficient production process into one in which purchased inputs account for the bulk of the resources employed.

The introduction of hybrid technology and the move to protect intellectual property rights on crop varieties provide incentives for capitalists to expand. Once they control the market, the capitalists have the power to decide “what to produce” and “what not to produce”. The development of hybrid seeds dispossessed farmers of control over the means of production by preventing them from autonomously reproducing their own seeds. This process affected not only the seed industry, but the entire agri-food system.

With seed at the core of agricultural production, it is difficult to imagine any form of “food sovereignty” that does not include a necessary and concomitant dimension of “seed sovereignty.” Corporate appropriation of plant genetic resources and the global imposition of intellectual property rights are currently serious constraints on the development of new cultivars by public breeders to make available for their small farmers. The “big four” – Corteva Agriscience, Bayer, BASF, and ChemChina – currently dominate more than 60Pct of the global seed market.

In economics, a monopolized market eliminates competition and leads to exploitation of buyers through improper conduct. These giant biotech corporations have been continuously expanding through merger and take-over of smaller companies in the developing world to further dominate the market. There is also claim that they file legal cases against farmers whose farms are unknowingly contaminated with patented seeds due to “genetic drift” through the process of pollination.

As a solution, Ethiopia may follow a strategy to approve the use of the technology on selected crops (e.g. BT cotton) to serve the high demand for agro-processing given the fact that cotton is cultivated in mechanized agriculture in remote locations. Interestingly, survey information indicates that Ethiopian maize farmers in high potential areas (e.g. Sidama Zone) are highly inclined to buy hybrid varieties from private suppliers even at a higher price for preferred attributes. Such inclination was evidenced with the availability of substitutes from the public enterprises at a relatively lower cost.

More importantly, the seed sector in Ethiopia is underdeveloped and dominated by public organizations across the seed chain. Breeding, together with seed access, can transform the lives of smallholders and help them build a robust seed distribution system. Given the concern of bureaucracy and inefficiency in the public sector, there is still room for the private sector to operate in the market and build a vibrant seed sector.

To my knowledge, there are no agro-dealers in Ethiopia that provide pertinent information and desirable innovations to small farmers and serve as a substitute to the public extension system. The government devoted huge amount of budget to disseminate technologies using the extension agents. However, studies show that the government has a strong desire to use the extension system as a political control mechanism. Public extension workers were hugely involved in non-extension activities. To this end, supporting private dealers to operate at grass-root level is crucial to serve small farmers effectively.

Studies also inform that substantial amount of yield advantage is achieved using conventional breeding. However, the level of productivity is below expectation given the expanding population number. In this case, it is crucial to capacitate public breeding institutes and breeders to release new varieties that are compatible with the diverse agricultural systems through a bottom up planning to set breeding priorities. Participatory varietal selection (PVS) brings a wealth of local experience and knowledge by creating opportunities for farmers in the breeding process to evaluate and choose their preferred crop varieties.

Additionally, farmers should be capacitated financially in the form of credit services to enhance their purchasing power to invest in innovative tools, motivating breeders (royalty fees) in releasing varieties with farmers’ preferred traits continuously. Developing seed supply chains to improve access to and availability of quality seeds is essential; while seeds should be climate-smart, nutritionally enriched, and higher yielding. That would make them more reliable and sustainable in the long-term. Then, innovative breeding institutes would produce resilient and productive cultivars adapted to a multiplicity of agro-ecosystems.

9th Year • Jun.16 – July.15 2020 • No. 87

Shimelis Araya

PostDoc Research Fellow at JLU Giessen in Germany He can be reached at

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