Ethiopian genes

Ethiopia is known as a hotspot for biodiversity, featuring a vast array of genetic resources. To conserve this, the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute runs community conservation programs and hosts two Gene Banks to make sure genetic materials are protected and used sustainably so that they can last for generations to come. This is not easy work as the population boom and land degradation and fragmentation affect Ethiopia’s biodiversity. Melesse Maryo (PhD), Director General of the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, an agro biodiversity expert spoke to Capital about the Institute’s work, challenges it faces working with GMOs.   

 Capital: What is the mandate of the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute?

Melesse Maryo: We are working to conserve plants, animals, forests and large plants as well as microbes. At first we try and protect them in their natural habitat, and then we put them in a gene bank which has temperature controlled or ‘cold’ rooms. We are seeing a lot of erratic weather which significantly effects biodiversity, and some genes that were here a year ago may no longer exist, that is why we need to utilize gene banks.

It has been around 40 years since the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute was established in different forms and in the gene bank we currently have, you will find genetic varieties that existed 20 years ago; there are many grains, trees and so on.

We also do a lot of work on sustainability, making sure that we don’t use all the genetic materials that have been saved. We need to make sure that these genetic materials exist for generations to come by using everything in a sustainable manner.

There are different ways of doing this. For example it is possible for a seed to spoil if it has been in a gene bank for a long period of time. To alleviate this we give out the seeds to farmers as well as to agricultural scientists so that the farmers can plant them and the scientists can do research on them.  After that, we get new seeds back from the farmers that will have a longer shelf life when placed in the gene bank.

In majority of the cases, it is the community that will be conserving genetic materials. It is the community that can protect the forests and animals and by doing so, they need to be able to benefit from them. So we try to facilitate that because ultimately that is also what contributes to the sustainability of the cause.

Capital: How many gene banks does Ethiopia currently have?

Melesse: There was only one Gene Bank which was based at the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute compound. But then, because there could be unforeseen situations where the Bank could be destroyed or damaged, we decided to have an exact duplicate in Fiche Town in central Ethiopia.

Capital: Do the gene banks only hold genetic materials found in Ethiopia? 

Melesse: We also conserve genetic materials from outside. We do this because years back; there were genetic materials that left the country without proper authorization. So we work to bring back those genetic materials and eventually get a patent for them.

Capital: What would you say are the major challenges for protecting and conserving biodiversity?

Melesse: The biggest challenge is land degradation primarily from increasing population and, climate change.

Forests have a lot of biodiversity. As population increases, the forest is destroyed for food production and then that land is used ineffectively and unsustainably, which degrades it.

Another problem is fighting invader genes that come from other parts of the world that destroy and takeover the indigenous diversity.

Capital: It is said that Ethiopia is a biodiversity hotspot which means that it needs to be heavily protected. Recently the Biodiversity Law was amended to allow for Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to be brought in for studies and closed trials. Does that concern you?

Melesse: We do have a lot of concern. There are many vague areas with that issue. There are a lot of institutions that say GMO is necessary to end food insecurity and poverty. We at the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, believe that we can create food security by protecting our genetic materials. We are against GMO for many reasons, we have observed many problems.