Melaku, 84, said that the preservation of indigenous seed varieties which he said are not only cost-effective for farmers but was the most sustainable way to develop agriculture should be an utmost priority. “Attempts to improve agricultural outputs should be done in collaboration with farmers, not by imposing it upon them. Let us explore the genes that we have on the ground first and make good use of it. Knowledge system and the material go hand in hand, he said.
“It is too risky to rely on seeds that have no local adaptation and built-in genetic diversity. Farmers should rather be helped to improve the genetic performance of crops than to be dictated to buy costly GM seeds. In the context it is being developed and used, GMOs has a danger. It is a double-edged sword. “Let us be careful not to be a basket case,” he told the interviewer. “From the farmer’s point view, the yield was not the only criterion, farmers place also importance to diversity in seasons, topography, taste, specific harvest that could be used for specific cultural activities, and a number of things. For farmers, sustainability is an important criterion. They have developed the strategy to spread the risk between factors of season, location, and diversity. So their varieties will have enough plasticity to allow them to grow in diverse conditions.” he said.
Though many are voicing their concern about the risk of smallholder’s loss of sovereign control of their seeds as western companies push to enhance their access to Ethiopian markets, the Ethiopian government is showing a willingness to accept the uptake of GM seeds. In a recent meeting, the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) Director, Tadesse Daba said that Bt-cotton was permitted for a confined field trial in 2016 and licensed in 2018, the first for the country. GM maize is also currently under confined field trial to check whether it really prevents diseases or not, he said.
Dr. Melaku said Bt-cotton could be Trojan Horse for the acceptance of other genetically modified crops. “If we partner with profit-generating multinational corporations, it would have enormous implications for our food supply. And the corporations are using Bt cotton as an entry point and they would go on to introduce more GM crops. And they are saying say trial. Where do they conduct the trial? When you do that in a crowded place, there is a potential risk of toxicity,” he said.
“We need technology. We need novel techniques. I am not against the technology per se”, said Melaku, who has built himself an international reputation for preserving the country’s genetic wealth by building the seed conservation center in the country. “We have other types of farming methods that are delivering drought-tolerant crops and enhancement value.
“Can we adopt GM technology here? It could be done in uniform topographic such as Canada and the US prairies, he said, adding, “but here in a country like Ethiopia, in a small-scale farming area that does not even cover one kilometer and the character of the soil and air varies, it would be practically impossible,” he said.
Born in 1936, Melaku Worede obtained a Ph.D. in Agronomy (Genetics and Breeding) from the University of Nebraska, USA in the 1960s. He returned to Ethiopia and became involved in the planning of the Plant Genetic Resources Centre in Addis Ababa, of which he became Director in 1979. He held this post until his retirement in 1993 to join the Seeds of Survival Programme of Ethiopia, which he founded with the support of a consortium of Canadian NGOs led by the Unitarian Service Committee (USC/Canada). He was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 1989 “for preserving Ethiopia’s genetic wealth by building one of the finest seed conservation centers in the world.”
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