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March 14th, 2017 / B4FA Fellow, Hope Mafaranga

B4FA Fellow, Hope Mafaranga reports: The Ethiopian Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Kare Chawicha, called on environmentalists to embrace biotechnology as one way of mitigating climate change. His comments came when he opened a communication training workshop on biotechnology and biosafety for media practitioners from Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda and Zambia.

Minister Chawicha said that, as a result of climate change, many countries in Africa, including Ethiopia, have been hit by severe drought, resulting in food and water shortages. The minister added that the drought that recently hit Ethiopia was the worst the country had experienced for more than 50 years. He attributed the situation to both man-made and natural hazards, which, he said, will hurt Africa’s food security.

“The goal of any state is to ensure food security and prosperity for its citizens,” the minister said. “In Africa we need to increase our agricultural productivity to ensure adequate supplies for people and for industry. One of the ways of addressing food security and linked economic challenges lies in employing advanced technologies such as biotechnology,” he said, pointing out that 20 years have passed since the first introduction of biotech crop varieties, popularly known as genetically modified organisms (GMO), which today are grown on 188 million hectares in 28 countries around the world.

“Mixed and confusing messages have led to inconsistent biotechnology and biosafety policy action in Africa,” he said, adding, “Policy makers must have access to cutting edge scientific evidence and advice to be able to make the best decisions about the tough challenges facing our region”.

Dr. Endale Gebre from the Ethiopian Institute of Agriculture Research explained that GMOs are produced by a laboratory process in which genes from of one organism are extracted and inserted into the genetic material of others. The foreign genes may come from bacteria, viruses, insects, plants, animals or even humans.

“What is not possible in conventional breeding becomes very possible through genetic engineering,” he said. “Modern biotech could have an impact on food security that has not been realized in most developing countries,” he added.

Dr. Gebre went on to say that farmers are being brought on board to ensure that they understand how GM crops work and the benefits they can bring.
“It is important to integrate farmers and private sector in the process so farmers realize that GM crops can be resistant to disease,pests and drought, improve yields and protect endangered species – effectively promoting food security and potentially eliminating hunger in Africa,” he said.

Dr. Margret Karembu, the Director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) Africenter said that, despite the efforts of research, there are still many negative forces that oppose GMOs.

She called upon the environmentalists and other activists to embrace the new technology, adding that it is the only way in which Africa will be able to overcome the challenges of climate change.

“There are some sources that criticise the efforts of biotechnology, and which have had a negative impact on the implementation of climate change policies,” she said.

Dr. Karembu said that people’s concerns over GMOs relate to food and feed safety, environmental safety, and economic, social and cultural issues, but confirmed that genetic modification is just another agricultural tool that will not replace but complement other farming methods. “The safety of any product of GM must be approved by regulatory bodies to the same level as conventional products,” she stressed, “and no one can risk people’s lives by feeding them on something that is not safe”.

To date in Africa, she confirmed, only Burkina Faso, South Africa and Sudan have embraced GMOs, but reported that Kenya is working on cotton, maize, rice, sorghum and sweetpotato, while Uganda is working on banana, cassava and rice.

Dr Karembu noted that most young people are migrating from rural areas to towns, leaving farming to their elders who are still using old methods. For farming systems to become attractive to youth and environmentally friendly, she concluded, they must change to embrace new technologies that are less labour intensive more gender friendly and, above all, sustainable.