This interview was published on EBR’s 89th edition, in August 2020. The publication ran two interviews: a pro-GMO article from the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute (EIAR) and an argument from the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute (EBI). However, following the publication, EIAR and the Ethiopian Environment, Forest and Climate Change Commission (EFCCC) claimed EBI’s interview affects efforts of ensuring food security. The final paragraph of this version of the interview was excluded from the previous publication due to space shortage. EBR editorial apologizes for any inconveniences caused.
‘The Unwise Use of GMO Would Destroy Indigenous Biodiversity’
Melesse Maryo (PhD), Director General of the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute
Melesse Maryo (PhD) has been Director General of the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute (EBI) since 2016/17. Before assuming his current position, he used to be Vice President for Research and Technology transfer at Dilla University. He is an Agro-ecologist, specializing in agro-biodiversity. He earned his PhD from Addis Ababa University (AAU). He is one of two bureau members (the other from Ghana) representing Africa in the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Conference of Parties (COP), and International Treaty for Plant Genetic Resource for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA). He is also a Board Member of the Ethiopian Agriculture Council and Gulele Botanical Garden.
What is your view on GMOs?
For over 80Pct of Ethiopia’s population, agriculture is the only source of livelihood. If you destroy biodiversity, you destroy the human population. There is a high probability that the unwise use of GMO would destroy indigenous biodiversity. Once we lose our natural biodiversity by employing underdeveloped technology, we cannot recover it. Those countries pushing for GMOs are 100Pct dependent on technology. For example, Korea can keep living with Samsung’s revenue. But Ethiopia has no such alternative once it destroys its agriculture.
Biotechnology represents an unnatural breeding system. For instance, experts may use a fish gene to produce cold-tolerant tomato. They make Humulin, a diabetes medicine, from human genes. Golden rice is made of carotene, which is metabolized and converted by the human eye to prevent night blindness. Golden rice is for malnourished children. It also enables people to see in the dark. This is what charities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation give to children as vitamin droplets. This involves introducing plant genes into the animal genome.
Ethiopia is moving to adopt GMOs because we are unaware of our own biodiversity wealth. Ethiopia’s biodiversity has drought-resistant, pest-resistant, highly productive, nutritious, medicinal, and many other forms of genetic resources. Ethiopia is one of the eight origins and centers of biodiversity on earth. There are around 250,000 accessions of plant genetic resources conserved in gene banks in Africa. Ethiopia’s accession for crops and horticulture, without including the forest accession, constitutes one third of Africa’s total collection. Ethiopia has huge biodiversity resources. There are close to 5,600 coffee varieties and over 6,000 high altitude plant species in Ethiopia. Our biodiversity in animals has not been well explored taxonomically but its abundance is undeniable.
Ethiopian famers grow enset, beans, mango, cassava, and many more on small patches of land in their backyard. They ensure their own food security on less than a quarter of a hectare. Farmers of Wuhabit, around Raya in Tigrai, took drought resistant variety of wheat seed from the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute (EBI) and succeeded in producing sufficient yield. Using participatory selection and breeding, they started to grow high-productivity wheat that uses minimal moisture. In a workshop organized by the Ministry of Agriculture, I remember hearing a report that mentioned over 60Pct of improved chicken breeds imported from abroad die early. If so, we better opt to use our own well-adapted breeds such as that in Amaro of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region (SNNPR). In this area of the country, there is a local chicken variety called ‘Amaro Doro’. It is so big to the extent that you struggle to carry it.
If Ethiopia succeeded in agroforestry practices as aspired, agricultural productivity and food security could reasonably be ensured. Irrigation and mechanization are also underdeveloped in Ethiopia. This implies that modernizing Ethiopia’s agriculture needs a holistic approach, not just reliant on GMOs. Research is a process that takes years. However, we haven’t exhaustively worked with indigenous varieties.
In my view, GMOs should be considered the last resort. They may affect the soil and indigenous crops. Encoded with pesticide genes, GMOs have a potential to kill other beneficial insect and microbial species that might be necessary for the ecosystem. For instance, it kills rhizobium which constitutes as a critical biofertilizer. There are reports showing that GMO plants can also kill butterflies and other insects. GMO promoters argue that it is ‘specific.’ However, they are not sure of those claims themselves. When GMO genes kill some insects and microbial forms, the natural food pyramid will ultimately be affected. Therefore, it poses a critical danger to the natural ecosystem.
Even the developed world (European countries) has finally decided to come back to nature. I participate on the meetings of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), representing Ethiopia as a focal person. Under the umbrella of the convention, the world is currently working on a ‘nature-based solution’. This year’s theme of CBD is ‘our solution is in nature.’ This shows that the world is trying to find the way back to nature. However, GMO promoters like the USA still do not support this idea.
My fear generally is that GMO will destroy Ethiopia’s biodiversity that evolved over the last 10,000 years, surviving every kind of threat. Now we are to destroy that on the spot with a technology developed twenty years ago. We cannot recover the indigenous biodiversity, once it goes out of our hands.
Ethiopia’s proclamation shifted from denouncing GMO to promoting it between 2009 and 2015. What was the reason behind the sudden change of policy?
It is the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), emphasizing food security and maximizing agricultural productivity, that is in favor of using GMOs. I watched on Youtube institutions such as parliament, EIAR, and the Ethiopian Bio-Technology Institute (EBTI) visited Indian GMO farms; and this probably laid the ground for the amendment of the proclamation without proper public consultations. The Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) also had a role in the move towards GMOs in Ethiopia. From the get-go, I believe the establishment of the ATA was in relation to endorsing GMOs in Ethiopia. Some Ethiopian agricultural experts are also behind the scenes. I cannot see government putting the GMO topic up for debate in universities, the media, and with the public at large.
EBI was not consulted properly by government institutions and this closed the possibility to look for alternatives before going to GMOs. They did not even talk to us on this topic. I even nagged and begged them to work with EBI first.
Why is GMO promoted in developing countries while advanced countries are banning it?
USA, unlike the majority of countries around the world, is not a ratifier of the CBD protocols. It rejected the Paris climate change accord. USA is not a member of the CBD. So, why should Ethiopia adopt GMOs even at a time when some EU member countries, that have sophisticated technologies, are turning their back against it?
How far can EBI can go to discourage GMOs in Ethiopia, with perspective to protecting indigenous biodiversity?
EBI’s director and the deputy cannot influence GMOs, but our researchers can. I cannot contradict a law approved by the parliament. Civil societies and researchers can oppose the GMO law. EBI has the authority to go and assess the impact of GMOs on the environment, once GMOs are commercialized and cultivated in open farms. But to this point, government has been telling us GMOs are in confined trials and we have no information whether it has been commercialized or not. If farmers complain or we discover that GMOs are affecting the environment, I can give a press announcement, boldly. To do so, I must see it first or have it assessed by our researchers. EBI’s proclamation allows us to follow-up and control any impact on indigenous biodiversity and the environment. Thus far, we have no evidence or information GMO has been commercialized because the process is closed, even for us.
9th Year • August 1 – 15 2020 • No. 89