In an effort to improve agricultural productivity and safety, Ethiopia has approved the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) cotton and field research on GM maize.
The two crops have been genetically engineered to include genes from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a common soil bacterium that is widely used to control insect pests in organic agriculture. Breeding pest resistance into a crop significantly reduces the need to apply pesticides during cultivation, while greatly improving yields.
“I think we have to strongly work on awareness creation to generalize what GM means for Ethiopia,” said Assefa Gudina, director of the Ministry’s Biosafety Affairs Directorate.
Ethiopia’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate (MEFCC) approved the environmental release of Bt cotton following two years of confined field trial research by the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR). The two cotton hybrids that will be released for commercial cultivation have been tested to ensure they are compatible with Ethiopia’s growing conditions.
Gudina said Bt cotton was approved after experts from the Biosafety Directorate and a technical team, established by MEFCC and comprising members of various concerned organizations, evaluated the final confined field trial report submitted by EIAR. The regulatory report risk assessment document submitted by the applicant and two years of efficacy test reports were considered for evaluation. Their analysis confirmed GM cotton is safe for the environment and human health, Assefa said.
Bt cotton is already widely cultivated in the US, India, China and Sudan, and Kenya is currently conducting performance trials on the crop. Ethiopia’s National Seed Approval Committee still must endorse the Bt cotton seeds before they can be grown on plantations and small farms.
The Ministry also issued a five-year permit to conduct confined trials on drought-tolerant and pest-resistant TELA corn, which was developed under the philanthropic Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project in partnership with the African Agricultural Technology Foundation. The TELA planting represents Ethiopia’s first field trial of a GM food crop.
Similar TELA trials have been successfully conducted in Uganda, Tanzania, Mozambique and Kenya. Farmers are now growing TELA maize commercially in South Africa.
Meanwhile, Ethiopian researchers are collaborating with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) on a project that is using genetic engineering to develop varieties of enset that are resistant to the devastating bacterial wilt disease. Enset — an Ethiopian banana also known as false banana — is one of the nation’s key food security crops.
Enset is favored by farmers because it can withstand long periods of drought, heavy rains, and flooding. However, enset is being ravaged by bacterial wilt, threatening food security for over 15 million people who depend on it as a staple food. Scientists turned to the tools of modern biotechnology when 30 years of research using conventional techniques failed to control the disease.