BY DERESE TESHOME
If one requests saying, “Should we be worried about losing our indigenous crops because of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?” The answer is an outright No. A range of reasons can of course be cited along this line. As we have all read in newspapers, watched on television and heard in discussions on the corridors of our offices and elsewhere, the government of Ethiopia has given a green light for various trials that will lead to the release and growing of genetically modified crops in our country.
The Bt-cotton and TELA maize are insect pest protected and drought tolerant, as well as a bacterial wilt disease-resistant enset (false banana) evaluations are being conducted by our scientists here in Ethiopia. There have been arguments that the introduction of genetically modified crops would result in loss of indigenous resources as farmers, consumers and everyone in the agricultural value chain are believed to abandon their indigenous varieties in favor of GM crops. The reality is that no indigenous varieties of any crop will be lost when GM crops are introduced for the latter and other non-GM crops can co-exist.
GM crops bring only one or a few traits of interest while all the other farmer favored traits are preserved in the new variety. Our scientist in the national gene bank also regularly conserves crop germplasm since conventional crop breeding itself reduces germplasm diversity GM crops have been grown for more than 33 years across the world and there has never been any incidents recorded of them replacing indigenous varieties.
It is not possible to say no indigenous crop would be existent today since all would have been replaced by conventionally bred crop varieties because farmers have continued selecting and improving their indigenous varieties every year for centuries. Besides, GM crops are not necessarily new varieties; rather they are existing varieties improved with selected traits such as pest resistance, herbicide resistance or drought tolerance.
For instance, GM enset will not be a different variety but rather an improved version with bacterial wilt resistance traits. Ethiopia is the place of origin of enset and we love our enset. Maize and wheat which have no origin in the country have become common foods with several indigenous varieties serving as raw materials for a lot of the local dishes we cherish so much. The maize we eat these days, which originated from Southern America, has different sizes and qualities. Its native variety teosinte is, however, as small as a human middle finger.
Both still exist in Mexico although people do not consume teosinte. The larger grained maize is the one that has managed to spread in the world. If this development did not lead to the extinction of teosinte, why would anyone presume GM TELA maize will cause local varieties of maize in Ethiopia to become extinct? In reality, farmers will still have their choice to either grow indigenous maize varieties if they choose or the stress tolerant GM maize when it gets into the market. Most GM development efforts in Africa are geared towards introducing the trait of interest into local indigenous varieties instead of bringing the trait into introduced crop varieties.
In Ghana, for example, where GM cowpea is being tested, the gene responsible for resistance to the deadly Maruca pest, Bt., a naturally occurring, soil-borne bacteria used for insect control in organic farming, has been introduced into one of the oldest and most popular indigenous cowpea varieties, Songotra. This shows clearly that introduction of GM crops does not cause local varieties to become extinct. GM technology can be used to help Ethiopia keep more local varieties around for centuries to come. And this has happened in other parts of the world.
For example, in the USA, since the 1900s, the blight pathogen has destroyed between 3 and 5 billion American chestnut trees, bringing the tree to near extinction. Several previously applied techniques aimed at developing resistant varieties had failed over the years until scientists used genetic engineering to develop varieties which are resistant. GM technology helped preserve this tree native to America that would have otherwise gone extinct in the next few decades. We can also draw lessons from the Hawaii papaya fruit in the US island state of Hawaii.
In the 1940s, the first papaya ringspot virus was detected on the island and by 1990; all parts of the island were under attack from the virus. Production of papaya fell by about 50% between 1993 and 2006, and the situation continued to worsen with every passing year. Various methods used to control the disease had failed until one scientist; Dennis Gonsalves developed a genetically modified variety known as the Rainbow papaya, with inherent resistance to the virus with a view to preserving the indigenous papaya industry in Hawaii. Fellow Ethiopians, there is no need to fear this novel technology as we work on introducing it into our beloved country.
Our local varieties are safe and can survive side-by-side with genetically modified crops. And in some cases, GM technology if aptly used will go a long way to help save some of our indigenous crops in future. Let’s embrace GMO technology, give farmers a choice and save our indigenous varieties too, so long as embracing GMO technology bears no harm on indigenous varieties. Yes, Ethiopian farmers need to be provided with such a lucrative option so as to help them seize the ladder of success with regard to crop production without compromising local varieties.
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Editor’s Note: The views entertained in this article do not necessarily reflect the stance of The Ethiopian Herald