Addis Ababa — Ethiopian farmers are preparing to plant genetically modified cotton seedlings when the rainy season gets underway in June, in a move the government hopes will boost textile and garment exports.
In early 2013, the Ethiopian parliament ratified a proclamation stating that genetically modified organisms (GMOs) can be imported if the environment ministry approves their compliance with bio-safety and public health guidelines.
Late last year, Ethiopia's Minister of Industry Ahmed Abtewe said the government was planning to use GM cotton crops as part of a strategy to boost the country's textile sector, although testing had yet to start. Ethiopia exports both cotton fabric and garments made of cotton.
The East African nation has embarked on an ambitious five-year economic plan to boost exports from the textile and garment industry to meet a target of $1 billion by 2015. But so far it is struggling, as the domestic supply of cotton lags behind demand from industry.
Officials hope that planting GM cotton will achieve higher yields than conventional varieties.
As yet, there are no plans to introduce other GM crops in Ethiopia. But environmental activists who oppose the use of GM technology in food production fear the policy shift on cotton could open the door to more GM crops.
The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), a pan-African network of NGOs and farmers' groups covering around 50 countries, is working on an action plan to safeguard African nations' right to define and manage their food and agriculture systems. It aims to prevent foreign firms from patenting locally used seeds and to curb the spread of GM crops.
"The GM story is being pushed around nowadays because it's beneficial to a few companies," AFSA coordinator Million Belay told Thomson Reuters Foundation. Around 10 seed companies - including Dupont, Monsanto and Syngenta - account for 70 percent of the global seed market, and they "want to control the rest", he added.
Within Africa, South Africa has the most open attitude to GM crops, and is the only country to grow them on a commercial scale. But an increasing number of African states have GM research and development (R&D) capacity, including Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria, Mali, Egypt and Uganda.
Others - such as Benin, Burkina Faso, Morocco, Senegal, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe - are known to have conducted field trials. The main GM crops of research and commercial interest in Africa are sweet potato, maize, cotton, soybean, pigeon pea, banana and tobacco.
CLIMATE CHANGE PRESSURES
"Africa should have its own food sovereignty because it has over 7,000 varieties of food that are eaten by African people," said Belay, arguing that big agri-businesses are pushing to narrow those down and focus on higher productivity alone.
"We live in this age of climate change which requires diversity in plants, eco-systems and knowledge and strategy," he added. There are some 60 different types of sorghum, for example, used for eating, making tella (a local alcoholic brew), easing pain during childbirth and other purposes.
Belay accused the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and other organisations that work with the private sector of attempting to take over food production from African states.
AGRA describes itself as an independent, Africa-based and African-led organisation, whose board of directors is chaired by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It brings together African leaders, scientists and business people, as well as international experts in agriculture and economic development.
In an emailed response to questions, AGRA said it does not advocate for or against GMOs, but supports conventional breeding R&D that improves the productivity of locally adapted crops and involves farmers in the testing and selection process.
It said there was no conclusive evidence either way on whether GM crops are more resilient in the face of climate change. But climate impacts are real, it said, and that is why it advocates for "climate-smart" agricultural research and development.
"Conventional breeding programmes need to be producing robust improved seed with greater genetic tolerance to heat stress, colder temperatures, drought and water logging," the organisation said.
At the same time, AGRA noted that GM crops have been grown "in a number of developed and developing countries worldwide - in some cases for more than 20 years - without concrete evidence of negative ecosystem and environmental impacts". In fact, the use of Bt cotton, for example, has greatly reduced the need to apply harmful pesticides, it added.
Just this month, however, India's Hindu newspaper reported that Bt cotton growers in Tamil Nadu state have suffered major losses from a new, unspecified disease.
AGRA emphasised that GM crop production should be "a wholly sovereign decision", taken with "great care, and only after thorough and inclusive debate and discussion".
AFSA is also critical of regional and national policymaking on seed laws in Africa, which it says favour multinational corporations to the detriment of smallholder farmers.
Belay said he had witnessed companies pressuring African governments through regional economic commissions to enable them to patent particular seed varieties.
"How can you patent something you didn't create? Seeds were produced thousands of years ago - they're the creation of millions of farmers, and they have been improved up to now," he said.
AGRA, on the other hand, argued that seed policies and regulations in most African nations are outdated, and rooted in an era when the state had responsibility for the entire seed value chain.
Liberalisation of seed policies would make room for African-owned-and-operated private companies to produce high-quality certified seed that farmers can purchase at a reasonable price, it said.
AFSA, meanwhile, fears that any new rules could end up preventing small farmers from continuing their longstanding, sustainable practices of freely using, exchanging and selling seeds.
Even though Belay regrets Ethiopia's move to start growing GM cotton, he believes the battle over GM crops in Africa is far from lost.
'It's a clash of a vision of two kinds of agricultural future. One says the most important thing is productivity, so for that we have to improve the seeds, supply the seeds with chemicals and if there is a problem with pests, we have to supply pesticides," he said.
"The other view is that there's economic, social and environmental change (happening), and changing scenarios necessitate dealing with challenges in diverse ways - meaning diverse agricultural systems, diverse knowledge systems and so on," he explained. - Thomson Reuters Foundation
(Writing and editing by Megan Rowling)
E.G. Woldegebriel is a journalist based in Addis Ababa with an interest in environmental issues.