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The Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research is currently in negotiations with Monsanto as well as other GMO seed manufacturing companies from countries like China, to bring in Bt cotton seeds for trials.
According to the institute’s Director General Fentahun Mengistu (PhD), Bt cotton is currently the main focus  of GMO development in Ethiopia. “We are looking into mixing the already existing cotton seeds with the GMO seeds or just bringing in existing GMO cotton seeds here for trial, ultimately for large scale plantation.”
The institute is negotiating with different companies to bring in seeds for laboratory and confined field testing, set to begin early in the current Ethiopian year.  “There needs to be a laboratory and confined field trial to assess the effectiveness of the seeds. The seeds will be made available for commercial production only after we conclude that the initial trial has been successful,” he told Capital.
According to Fentahun, some companies the institute is negotiating with had several concerns regarding the Bio-Safety laws. “Some of the potential seed suppliers have told us that the bio-safety laws are still too demanding especially parts of the regulations referring to penalties,” he said.
He further stated that Monsanto has voiced concerns with its seeds being tested in laboratories as well as in confined field trials. “Monsanto already has a heavy presence in Africa where their seeds have already gone through confined field trials. Because of that, they are opposing having another laboratory and confinement field trial in Ethiopia. But either way, as Ethiopia is just venturing into this kind of technology we are insisting on field trials,” he said.
Ethiopia is among several African countries that have signed seed registration laws for the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) region, an initiative aimed at increasing access to seed varieties as well as facilitate the safe movement of quality seeds which includes GMO seeds across the COMESA region.
“Even though Ethiopia has signed the framework agreement, each country still has the right to implement its own measures on the matter. So we will continue to insist that a field trial is necessary,” Fentahun said.
Priority has been given to Bt Cotton in Ethiopia as it has proven to be successful in several countries. “There is no doubt that GMO seeds would increase the productivity of cotton significantly, we can look at Sudan’s experience for example; 90 percent of cotton production is through GMO seeds, and their productivity has increased three folds.”
Ethiopia’s current cotton production is too low to meet the country’s rising demand. Despite steady increases in production, cotton output in previous years has been relatively flat- estimated at 184,000 bales in 2014/15- keeping the country from reaching its production targets, as outlined in the first GTP.
The institute hopes that GMO seeds will rectify the gap between supply and demand. “With GMO seeds, we can easily meet the country’s demand for cotton in a very short amount of time. Most investors are not interested in producing cotton because the yield is very small, but with this technology, more people will be encouraged to go into the sector,” Fenahun explained.
However, low levels of production are not simply due to poor quality seeds, previous legal restrictions on the cotton industry are also to blame. The government’s decision in 2010-12 to ban exporting surplus cotton, along with the fact that other crops, like sesame, were more profitable to grow led to low rates of farmers’ participation in the industry, and have also contributed to the current state of the sector, according to the Global Agricultural Information Network’s (GAIN) Annual Cotton Report on Ethiopia.
Recent policy is directed at attracting foreign investment, pointing to a change in direction from the government,  “The textile industry has been a priority sector for the government but because the current production of cotton is not meeting the demand, a huge amount is being imported with hard currency. So the fact that we may be able to meet the local demand in itself is a very big deal as it will be an input for value added products,” the Director explained.
In addition to Bt Cotton, the institute has also shown interest in working with other GMO seeds for crops like corn and soy beans.
Capital has learnt that a National Bio-Safety Committee will soon be set up by  the Ministry of Environment and Forest to oversee GMO related activities in the country. “The committee will advise the government on which direction the country should take in terms of adding other GMO seeds of different crops for commercial farming,” said Fentahun.
The Committee will consist of members from universities, Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Environment and Forests, among others. The government will make future decisions with regards to GMOs based on the Committee’s recommendations.
There has been and continues to be a global debate around the safety of using GMOs. Public discourse on the matter is largely divisive, with some deeming the practice unsafe while others passionately argue otherwise.
Fantahun argues that GMOs have benefits, “We have gone through global literature on the issue; we have looked at countries’ experiences. The European Union for example has done a 10 year study; the EU was not previously pro-GMO and still does not produce it on a commercial scale but uses GMO products. The EU’s study final conclusion is that there is basically no difference between GMO seeds and regular seeds.  That is one of our main points of reference.”
He also insists that, because the seeds are first tested in a small, controlled environment, problems that may occur will be manageable with minimal damage taking place.
“We wanted to try Bt cotton to start off with, not food crops and that’s for safety measures; safety is a priority,” he said.