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February 08, 2010

Scientists, donors blast Ethiopia's biosafety law as extreme, anti-biotechnology

by Peter Heinlein

Scientists and farmers are urging Ethiopia to reconsider a new biodiversity law they say restricts agricultural research and could hamper delivery of urgently needed food aid. The law has prompted foreign donors to cut off funding to Ethiopian scientific research institutions.

Ethiopia's government held a two day forum in early February to hear objections to a Biodiversity Proclamation approved by parliament last July, on the final day before summer recess. The law's stated objective is to protect biodiversity, as well as human health and animals, from 'the adverse effects of modified organisms.'

But critics say the proclamation chokes off research into improving crop production in a country suffering chronic food shortages. Tilaye Feyisa, assistant professor of plant biotechnology at Addis Ababa University says anyone involved in studying genetic engineering is subject to strict government regulation.

"It is an excellent proclamation to prevent research in plant genetic engineering," said Tilaye Feyisa. "If you break this proclamation, even unintentionally, you can be put in prison for one to three years."

Tilaye says funding for research on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, has dried up since the law went into effect.

"The money we get is from outside sources," said Tilaye. "We write proposals, when the country is against GMOs, having this proclamation, we don't get any money for research from foreign donors. It is killing scientific research."

Tilahun Zewelde is a former plant scientist at the Ethiopian Research Organization. He now work at Uganda's Agriculture Biotechnology Support Program. Speaking at this week's meeting, he charged Ethiopia's law was written by environmental extremists and adopted without review by a parliament that had no idea of its consequences.

"We can't even teach students life science and biotechnology," said Tilahun Zewelde. "It was drafted by very biased people. They believe biotechnology is bad, genetic engineering is bad and multinationals are going to take over everything, control the seed business. And the actual technology users were not involved in the drafting process. So it's one sided, not good for the country."

Biotechnology experts from other African nations came to the forum to express concerns about the Biosafety Proclamation. Togolese scientist Jacob Mignouna is Technical Director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. He says the law rejects conclusive evidence about the safety of genetically modified organisms in common use.

"There's no need to reinvent the wheel," said Jacob Mignouna. "The world has moved on. This technology has been proven. This is the message our colleagues from Ethiopia should understand.We must look carefully and see how we can move forward to embrace new technology while at the same time protecting biodiversity."

But Minister of State for Agricultural Development Abera Deresa says Ethiopia is not convinced by available evidence that GMOs are safe. The Agriculture Ministry was a sponsor of the forum, but Abera says the government has a duty to protect the public until the scientific community does more to prove GMOs pose no threat to health or to Ethiopia's biodiversity.

"Among scientists there is a division," said Abera Deresa. "A certain number of scientists who are not for GMO, a certain number of scientists who are for GMO. So we have to assess why this is happening." He says the government is reviewing the Biosafety Proclamation, and may ask parliament to make changes.

Meanwhile, aid donors say the law could restrict shipments of food intended for more than five million Ethiopians facing malnutrition.

The United States provides nearly 80 per cent of Ethiopia's food assistance. Among the U.S. supplies currently on the way is roughly 30,000 metric tons of corn-soy blend and vegetable oil, which are typically produced from bioengineered corn and soy. The Ethiopian government has issued a waiver to allow the products to come in to the country, but the waiver is due to expire at the end of February.

VOA

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