Ethiopia, which opposed genetically modified (GM) crops until 2015, has now green-lit observational field trials for GM potatoes that are resistant to late blight, a fungal disease that is devastating to potatoes and tomatoes. The crop will be tested in a confined farming area.
The body concerned — the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) — has also issued environmental clearance for transgenic (genetically modified) drought-tolerant and insect-protected maize (TELA maize) as a part of the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA maize) project.
WEMA is a public-private scientific and research collaboration started in 2008 to develop drought-tolerant white hybrid maize for small African farmers. It is coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) and national agricultural research institutions in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa and Mozambique
The special permit for the GM potato came after a year of review and deliberation by Ethiopia’s National Biosafety Advisory Committee, which reviewed a request from the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR).
Ethiopia allowed the cultivation of GM crops in a 2015 biosafety proclamation aimed at addressing food security. An advisory committee was then formed in 2017 by the country’s Council of Ministers to advise the government on GM organisms and biosafety.
The GM potato has been supported in Ethiopia by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and the International Potato Center (CIP) which counts Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda as members.
TELA maize has also been approved for a five-year permit for a confined trial. Developed by WEMA in partnership with African Agricultural Technology Foundation, the maize is grown commercially only in South Africa, but is undergoing field trials in Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda.
Field research for TELA maize dates back to 2018 — the same year Ethiopia approved the commercial cultivation of genetically modified Bt cotton after experts evaluated confined field trials and risk assessment documents for two years and deemed them safe for the environment and human health. Cultivated commercially in India, China, the US, and Sudan, field trials are underway for the pest-resistant cotton crop in Kenya. It was widely smuggled into Ethiopia from Sudan before it was approved.
Ethiopian researchers are also working on developing GM enset (Ensete ventricosum), a type of banana and a staple food crop in the country. Its various parts are used for other medicinal, utilitarian, and decorative purposes in indigenous cultures. Enset is a resilient plant when it comes to weather tolerance, but it falls prey to bacterial wilt disease.
Meanwhile, questions about the country’s lowland wheat programme — a drought-resistant crop — reportedly involving trials of GM wheat, have been met with no official response.