The import regulation of GMOs in Ethiopia protects the societal health, and the environment. Moreover, in the contemporary global order, the system of capitalism has resulted in the taking of advantage by the global north over the global south. But, the developing states are being considered as a laboratory for proofing the scientific achievements of the developed states, writes Dagmawi Gosaye Kebede.
Since the mid-18th century modern biotechnology or genetic engineering has expanded greatly. As a result of this scientific growth, the existence of an organism such as food items or crops created by a combination of two or more organisms has become a common phenomenon. Internationally, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biodiversity (Montreal, 2000) defines Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) as, ‘any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern biotechnology.’ Likewise, under the Ethiopian Biosafety Proclamation, ‘any biological entity, which has been artificially synthesized, or in which the genetic material or the expression of any of its traits has been changed by the introduction of any foreign gene or any other chemical whether taken from another organism, from a fossil organism or artificially synthesized, is referred as a GMO.’
GMOs are considered as increasing crop yields and food quality, thereby benefiting the society. It can be an alternative in meeting the critical food needs of developing countries. This view calls for the use of GMOs and their transactions. Contrarily, there are scientific debates as to its negative effect on human health and the environment. Because of its revolutionary nature, risk and uncertainty surround the process of genetic engineering and the resulting GMO product. As a result of altered regulatory functions, GMOs may exhibit increased allergenic tendencies, toxicity, or altered nutritional value. They may also exhibit mutations, which are errors that can occur in the sequence or reading of the DNA within a cell. Hence, the release of GMOs in to the environment and its interaction with human body, the ecosystem or animals would probably result in a risk. Moreover, the use of GMOs may rear-end with the ethical, religious and social values of a certain community.
Despite the above contentions, the practice of creating and using a genetically modified food has continued. The majority of the research and development for genetic crops has been based in developed countries and on commercial cash crops. Thus, as any type of product, Genetically Modified food items became the subject of international trade. The developed countries are exporting the result of their scientific achievements to the developing one, especially Africa. Hence, with the objective of facilitating the free movement of goods or liberalizing trade, the international trade law regulates the international transaction of GMOs. On the other side, international environmental laws such as the Biodiversity convention and its Protocol on biosafety, governs the issue of GMOs in addressing the concerns of protecting the environment and human health. Safe and contained use of GMOs is required by these laws.
Ethiopia, being a party to the Cartagena Protocol on Biodiversity has adopted a biosafety law which governs the transaction and importation of GMOs. Likewise, the country is moving towards membership of the World Trade Organization though the accession process is criticized as “a walk of a tortoise.” Accordingly, had the accession become successful, following the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO), especially the Sanitary and Phytosanitary agreement (SPS) and the Technical Barrier on Trade agreement (TBT) would be mandatory. The SPS and TBT agreements disciplines the measures taken by states for protecting human and animal health as well as the environment, and national security. These measures, which may possibly imposed on importation of GMOs, should not pause an arbitrary barrier on international trade.
On the other hand, the country has been a victim of different climate induced draughts. Currently, as a result of an El-Niño and different factors, food security in certain areas of Ethiopia has become questionable. Therefore, with respect to the current situation and the legal regime, posing the following questions is relevant. First, is the import regulation of GMOs in Ethiopia compatible with the SPS and TBT agreements of the WTO? Second, should the modification of the import regulation of GMOs be taken as an alternative to solve the pending food security problem?
To start with, the biosafety law regulates the importation of GMOs strictly with a detail rules provided under its six directives. The law is enacted with the objective of protecting human and animal health, biological diversity, the environment, by preventing or decreasing the adverse effects of GMOs. The law regulates any type of transaction for purposes of import, export, research, teaching, and use as a food. Placing a GMO in a market by selling or through food aid is prohibited unless authorization is given. Generally, the regulatory schemes under the law involve two stages. Initially, a party who wants to engage in GMO product import business or transaction should obtain an Advance Informed Agreement (AIA) from the Environmental Protection Authority (Now, from the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change) by primarily notifying and conducting a risk assessment. The application for importation should be accompanied by a statement signed by the head of the competent national authority of the country of export to the effect that the competent national authority takes full responsibility for the accuracy of the information provided about the product. Secondly, after getting AIA, the importer is expected to label and identify a GMO product in a clear manner and words written in both Amharic and English in the package. Moreover, he/she is expected to report the transaction he has taken, develop an alternative risk management strategy in case of accident, and follow the requirement for the transportation and storing of GMOs. Accordingly, these measures of regulation can be compatible with the SPS and TBT measures in terms of their objective, and the nature of the measures by itself. The measures are similar with the forms of the measures under SPS and TBT such as labeling, identification, risk assessment etc. However, there are stricter regulations which can be refuted as being arbitrary to international trade.
Secondly, GMOs were applauded by many food related international organizations, as a means of solving the critical food need of developing states by increasing crop yields and reducing production costs. These and other benefits of genetically modified foods can be taken as a means of food security. Producing a GMO in a farm or importing with a lesser price from developed countries or receiving the surplus products of the developed via food aid can be different mechanism by which the need for food is addressed. Hence, if we go through these mechanisms Ethiopia would have all the alternatives. However, whether GMOs can be used as a full remedy for sustainable food insecurity or whether importation of GMOs would solve the pending food shortage is subject to many factors.
Food security is the availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and an assured ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Accordingly, using genetically modified food lacks scientific certainty as to its safety or not, and probability of risk may exist or not. Eating something by itself may not result in food security unless it’s safe. As a result, the requirement by the biosafety proclamation to assess a risk and receive AIA is acceptable. Moreover, in the pretext of international trade liberalization, the people should not be tapped at peril and the government is discharging its protective duty. Nevertheless, in case of emergency food insecurity, following stricter regulation to import GMOs or to allow aid groups and organization to provide genetically modified food for the affected population may result in an ethical dilemma. However, the regulation of GMOs with respect to importation or food aid provided under the biosafety law is to protect the population of the country in general, and untying the procedures may result in a higher risk on human health or the environment. But, it should be noted that, this does not necessarily represent the practice of importing food aids in Ethiopia.
Despite this, there exists alternative mechanism to timely address the population in need. To begin with, the Ministry of Environment, forest and Climate change should decide over the issue of AIA in a short period of time, by developing time saving procedure. Secondly, the requirement that, the application for importation should be accompanied by a statement signed by the head of the competent national authority of the country of export to the effect that the competent national authority takes full responsibility for the accuracy of the information provided about the product, seems not feasible. Since, the applicant for importing a GMO is required to conduct a risk assessment, putting additional procedure would take time and it’s cumbersome. Apart from this, in order to solve the food shortage or poorness which exists in the country the government should examine the food policy and the implementation problems. The food consumption culture and system of the country should be revisited in a way which avoids food wastage. The government should be ready for future shortages. Otherwise, the government is not discharging its duty to ensure and protect the human rights to get food, which is interrelated with many aspects of human rights.
In the main, the import regulation of GMOs in Ethiopia protects the societal health, and the environment. Moreover, in the contemporary global order, the system of capitalism has resulted in the taking of advantage by the global north over the global south. But, the developing states are being considered as a laboratory for proofing the scientific achievements of the developed states. The presence of stricter regulation of GMOs trade in the global south is justifiable because, they have a poor technological advancement to domestically produce GMOs and they need to protect local or indigenous crops which are resilient to climate changes and which may as well contribute to the struggle for sustainable food security.
Ed.’s Note: Dagmawi Gosaye Kebede, is a lecturer of Law at Wolkite University School of Law, and part-time lecturer of Law at Addis Ababa University. He is also an Advocate and Consultant at Law in the Southern Regional State. His areas of research interest are International Economic Law, International Criminal Law, International Humanitarian Law, International Human Rights Law and International Environmental Law. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].