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Experts call on women in agriculture to consider GMOs as alternatives

Experts call on women in agriculture to consider GMOs as alternatives

Scientists and economic experts called on Ethiopian women in agriculture to consider genetically modified agricultural resources as alternative biotechnologies that would contribute to the betterment of livelihoods in their respective communities. 

At an event dubbed, “Connecting African Women in Agriculture: Ethiopia Edition,” and put together by the US Embassy in Addis Ababa in collaboration with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Judy Chambers (PhD), director of programs for biosafety systems with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), said Wednesday that most GM debates have centered around emotions, and lacked in focus on scientific orientations.

Molecular biologist by training, Chambers noted that “anti-GM activists” spoil GM-related discussions. She pointed out that corporate influence and ownership of seeds, financial capacities along with social and religious views overshadow scientific discussions. She also claimed that a new “agro-ecology movement” is mainstreaming across the globe which spreads the same messages the anti-GM folks had promoted in the past. She says it is a mere replacement of the anti-GM activists. “The movement targets women and most of them are left out of the technological equation in Ethiopia or in Africa”, Chambers said.

Hence, it is necessary to change the narratives that target women and biotechnology, and “leave the emotional part out of the discussions”. She also said that there are competing market interests out there. “From scientific point of view and from my own personal view, GMs benefit smallholder farming communities in Africa. But we don’t want to be confrontational, we want rather to be inclusive about the technology,” she claimed.

According to Patricia Zambrano, senior program manager with IFPRI, women in many countries, particularly in agriculture, are found to be absent in decision-making involving the use of biotechnologies such as BT Cotton (GM enhanced cotton designed to resist bollworm insects). Such stories hold the same in Africa, Zambrano noted. She featured positive impacts of biotechnology in the livelihoods of women in Colombia, Burkina Faso and Honduras. Women cotton producers in these countries have better understanding and adaptations of BT-Cotton.  

Stories of GM have been under the spotlight in Ethiopia as well. However, Chambers and her colleagues have not met with anti-GM activists here. Nevertheless, plant breeders and representatives of women-affiliated institutions have raised issues that go with GM and their impacts. Some argued that GM, being high-input intervention, had it been introduced, would deprive women’s biodiversity ownership rights in Ethiopia. There was also a desire on the part of the audience to learn more about the risks GM crops would have to a country like Ethiopia where only 20 percent of its land is arable.

Chambers reacted to such concerns citing the changing stand of the government of Ethiopia towards GM products. Drought tolerant and pest resistant products are looming in the equation, she said. It is to be recalled that a BT-Cotton lab and field trials have been conducted, and commercialization of BT-Cotton is pending.  

Micheal Francom, agriculture counselor and USDA liaison to the African Union, told The Reporter that his government has been supporting efforts of the Ethiopian government in the area of biotechnology. He has been following trends for the past three years here and says there are rooms for improvement for Ethiopian agriculture. One alternative is biotechnology, but both Francom and Chambers maintain that the technology is not a silver bullet that has solutions for every problem. Citing the U.S. experience, Francom said that 90 percent of maize, soybean and the like are GM crops which are consumed every day.