How GMOs are pushed into Africa: the case of Ethiopia


By Million Belay

Let me start with three stories from Ethiopia before I go into the politics of GMOs in Africa.

In 2013, I participated in a workshop at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR). From the introductions, I could see that over 90% of participants were either students of modern biotechnology or involved in one way or another in its development and spread, including representatives from the US Embassy and USAID.

The main debate was about which part of the 2009 Biosafety Regulation to change to allow confined field trials of Bt Cotton and the importation of patented genetic materials for laboratory experiments. The regulation was considered too restrictive and needing change. From civil society, Gebremedhin Birega, Ayele Kebede, and I were participating.

All of the presentations were about how GMOs are a must to feed us and to have enough cotton for our textile factories. When there was a break, I was in line for coffee behind a man whom I knew very well from the university. To my question about the meeting, I remember him saying, “We have to change this law, Million. Monsanto has refused to come to Ethiopia and to give us its patented germ cell for laboratory use if the law is not changed.” I just froze and didn’t say anything.

Ethiopian national fighting to change our law for Monsanto to come in? I couldn’t believe my ears and wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me. Later on, I learned that he did his Ph.D. in modern biotechnology.

The second story is about a meeting in 2014 to validate the COMESA Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy Implementation Plan, designed to harmonize biotech regulation across all 19 countries in the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.

In the afternoon, the discussion was on risk analysis of GE technology. The then Head of the Ethiopian Biotechnology Research Institute came and sat a chair away from me. Within five minutes of his arrival, he raised his hand and was immediately given the floor.

He said, “I think testing of GMO crops is done in the USA under the auspices of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Therefore, there is no need for us to do risk analysis here in Africa. We might as well get the seeds and plant them.”

Again I could not believe my ears. How could someone from a research centre in Ethiopia say that, when US and Africa have different terrains, and when he knows that the soil in Ethiopia changes every kilometre?

The third story comes from the Ethiopian Parliament in 2014. I had phoned a friend, the head of one of the key institutions in Ethiopia, who told me that he was in a meeting organized by the Ethiopian Science Academy with funding from USAID.

They were strategizing on how to influence the revision of the 2009 Ethiopian Biosafety Proclamation. Ethiopian conservationists told me that there would be a debate at the Parliament on the new Proclamation and asked me to participate. Weeks earlier, I had invited key knowledgeable actors including Solomon Kebede, head of Movement for Ecological Learning and Community Action (MELCA – Ethiopia), and we had criticized the newly suggested proclamation line by line and had submitted our critique to the Standing Committee for Environment of the Ethiopian Parliament.

I called Gebremedhin, and we agreed to go and defend the document we had submitted. We arrived early and watched as more than 20 high-level scientists descended on the Parliament, very well briefed and organized. The scientists introduced themselves to the Parliament; none of them had any semblance of connection with biosafety law or regulation, nor had they all participated in the debate related to the Proclamation before.

It was clear that they were paraded to impress the Parliament with their credentials, and to push for a change of the Proclamation. In 2015, the GMO proponents succeeded in weakening the Ethiopian Biosafety Proclamation and the institutional resistance to GMOs.

The big question is: What then were the key strategies (or ways) that GMO proponents were putting into practice behind the scenes in my stories? How could they turn the tide of resistance against GMOs, from institutions and academia, to get their way?

I found a good part of the answer in apaperwritten by Matthew A. Schnurr. Exploring the case of Uganda, he identifies three strategies by which corporate actors, aid agencies, philanthrocapitalists, policy officials, and research scientists influence the acceptance of GMOs and change regulations in Africa.

The first is material/real power. Real power speaks about a donor-driven agenda to influence structures in the government. The influence starts with training key individuals, mostly promising African scientists, in modern biotechnology at universities in the North.

These key individuals will be placed, through lobbying and connections, in key government institutions and positions, to act as intellectuals for the biotech bloc. Real power exerts pressure to shift regulatory regimes to support biotechnology. Since most country biosafety processes are slow and their capacity for producing the regulation is low, they will push for sub-regional harmonization of biosafety laws to circumvent restrictions at national regulations. This is where my second story above fits.  

The second strategy is what they call institutional power. This is a strategy to use both formal and informal means to exert pressure on institutions. Detailed mapping and ranking of key individuals and institutions will be done. There will be support for structural development, including the building of biotechnology research centers, and supporting more students to study abroad. Through a series of lunch meetings, organized visits, and trips abroad, the targeted institutions will be pushed to change their resistance against GMOs. They have also created key institutions to facilitate acceptance.

The third strategy is what they call influencing the narrative. They target key government offices and bombard them with flowery information regarding the technology. They organize field visits for combined groups of journalists and government officials.  They also target public opinion, writing Op-Eds in national media, and organizing training for journalists, often with hefty per diems, and encourage them to write and talk about how GMOs are a must to increase production and feed the people. They take promising journalists to Cornell University in the US and get them trained in the mainly Bill Gates and USAID supported organization called Cornell Alliance for Science. They court science writers and editors in the media and influence them to write about the technology. 

A video showing a USAID-sponsored tour to India bringing Ethiopian policymakers, journalists, and farmers. Abu Tefera, an agricultural specialist of the USDA, and others are seen speaking of the virtues of GM crops introduced in India by Monsanto.

I am convinced they have used this combination of strategies in Ethiopia, and suspect that they have used them in other countries.

The CSOs in Africa do not have the financial or political clout that these funding institutions and newly-minted networks have. This enormous economic influence has narrowed our political space, turned Africans against each other, and arm-twisted our governments to support a technology that they least understand and are deeply suspicious about.

We need to use our research, and that of others, to provide evidence that agroecology is a solution. We need to educate the public about the myths that are thrown around by the GMO proponents. We need to strategize how to reach our decision-makers and advocate for rejecting GMOs. Finally, we need to strengthen and unite the social movement to confront the push effectively. That is the only instrument that we have, and we have to use it properly. 

Million Belay

Million Belay coordinates the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa. He is a founder and former director of MELCA – Ethiopia and he is a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). He has a Ph.D. in environmental learning, an MSc in tourism and conservation, and a BSc in Biology.

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