Researchers are left in limbo as they await funding for a genetically modified potato project that lost its financing as part of the US government’s suspension of non-humanitarian aid to Ethiopia.
The National Agricultural Biotechnology Research Center (NABRC) working with researchers at Michigan State University won a USD 13 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) for a project in 2021.
The project was intended to create a late-blight resistant potato for agricultural production using genes from a wild species of potato. The genetically modified organism (GMO) project is headed by Tadesse Daba (PhD), country coordinator at Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology at NABRC.
“The only thing left was signing an agreement and to begin testing in a confined trial farming area,” he told The Reporter. “But war broke out in northern Ethiopia and our research was cut off.”
The US government announced the suspension of all non-humanitarian aid to Ethiopia in 2021, a few months after fighting began between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the federal government.
NARBC is responsible for partnering with the country’s 22 institutions dedicated to agricultural research for subjects related to biotechnology.
Tadesse warns the potato project cut off could have grave consequences.
“Late-blight could attack all edible species of potato all over the world,” he said. “The devastation to production could be between 70 and 100 percent, which is why grant proposals were submitted from various countries.”
The USAID global grant was initially extended to researchers in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Nigeria before a letter notified NABRC, the University of Michigan, and the project coordinators that funding had been suspended for research in Ethiopia.
USAID has since re-allocated the funding to researchers in Kenya, according to Tadesse.
Prior to the funding being pulled, NABRC had received a permit from the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) to test the GMO potatoes on a quarantined trial farming area.
“We were on the verge of readying the trial area when we received the letter,” said Tadesse. “The project is now on hold. I’m still writing to USAID, trying to get the funding back.”
Genetically modified products are required to undergo four evaluation stages before entering the domestic cultivation system. The first consists of laboratory research, followed by planting and testing on confined and fenced plots.
The genetically modified crops are then planted and tested in EPA and National Biosafety Advisory Committee regulated field trials. If successful, NABRC can begin providing GMO seeds to farmers for commercial activities.
The Reporter paid a visit to the NABRC’s tissue culture department, where the late-blight resistant GMO potatoes are planted in glass containers in a temperature and UV light controlled laboratory in Holeta town.
The department also oversees research on a bacterial-wilt resistant strain of Enset (false banana) on selected plots in Holeta and Hawassa. The research on the GMO Enset is reportedly in its final stages.
The bacterial wilt could potentially destroy yields of the chief source of nutrition for close to a fifth of Ethiopia’s population, particularly important to people residing in the country’s south and southwestern regions
Ibsa Fite is the lead researcher on the Enset project.
“Drought and food insecurity in the Gurage, Sidama, and Dawro regions are heavily influenced by the destruction this disease causes,” he said.
His project looks to use bacteria-resistant genes pulled from bell pepper to fortify Enset plants.
The GMO Enset is kept in a greenhouse at the NABRC facility in Holeta. The laboratory’s procedures are meticulously kept. Entry is through a double gate, where visitors are required to change their shoes after passing through the first gate, and don protective gear including gloves and gowns after passing through the second.
The main tissue culture laboratory has separate facilities for disinfection, growth medium preparation, air purification, and a temperature and UV-light controlled area for plants to grow until rooted sufficiently.
When the roots are long enough to be planted, the plant is taken to a confined testing area.
The Reporter observed the GMO Enset in this last stage. The EPA has nodded to a field trial, which is expected to commence in May.
Following the introduction of the Biosafety proclamation in 2015, which allowed GMO cultivation in Ethiopia for the first time, Ethiopian researchers have embarked on testing GMO cotton, maize, potato, and Enset.
Only GMO cotton has thus far been approved for commercial use.