By Mekonnen Teshome &Tesfaye Abate

A journalistic assessment conducted by senior science journalists corroborates that some of the major challenges of biotechnology researches in Ethiopia are attributed to public misconception.

The assessment that captures the views of the target groups that researchers, environmentalists, communicators/journalists, policy makers and end-users of biotechnological researches aims at exploring the perceptions of the subjects about biotechnology researches and their policy impact.

It is evident that biotechnology development has always triggered tremendous public controversy and debate related to safety measures and ethical concerns.

However, biotechnologists point out that lack of technical knowledge and misinformation gives rise to the problems that hold back a truly informed and vital public debate and effective biotech communication.

Sources of Misconceptions  

Mr. Assefa Gudina Mulata, Director, Biosafety and Alien Invasive Species Regulation Directorate, Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) says: “Most of the misconceptions are due to lack of scientific understanding about biotech and its application.”

Tadessa Daba (Ph.D.), a senior researcher of microbial biotechnology at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) also asserts that there is impactful misconception among stakeholders and the general public about agricultural biotechnology and explains that misconceptions is mainly rooted in the usual mixing up biotechnology with genetic modification and genetic engineering.

Mr. Derese Teshome, the other researcher in agricultural technology transfer, commercialization and policy analysis, also explains that the common actions, externalization of biotechnology solutions as foreign interest and portraying them as only negative and harmful are the primary sources of misconceptions in biotechnological communication.

The Big Challengers

The findings that have come from administrating questionnaires to Ethiopian biotechnology research scientists corroborates that mostly the big challenges of biotechnological advancement stand out to be environmentalists, journalists/the media/ and other scholars.

Regarding resistances that come from various social groups, environmentalists come at the forefront in claiming that biotechnology and especially genetics engineering is dangerous to health and the environment.

According to the environmentalists, genetics engineering is a cause of increased Herbicide use, and responsible to spread of “superweeds,” or weeds that can no longer be killed by those herbicides and evolving “superpests” and increases various contaminations  of  gene flow from GM crops to wild and non-GM crops and foods, and organic farming as well as biodiversity loss, among others.

Other scholars and journalists/ media professionals are also identified as challengers by biotechnology research scientists. “Of cause not all other scholars or non-environmentalists and journalists are against biotechnology or GM plants. Many scholars and media people are now engaged in biotech communication and have started looking into the matter in a very fair and balanced manner,” the assessment says.

The same fact was noticed by the journalistic assessment that 50% of the media practitioners are well aware of the science of biotechnology and have experienced report ring the subject, while 50% of the journalists are totally unheard of the science of biotechnology and never reported issues of biotechnology.

Divergent to the negative perceptions of the challengers, end-users and beneficiary farmers interviewed by the research group, despite their low level understanding of the science, are found to be very supportive of biotechnological research and have expressed their satisfactions on the productivity they benefited from which they wish to receive more sustainably.

Misconceptions vis-à-vis realities on the ground  

Mostly the agricultural scientists find out that the misconceptions spreading around the public spheres due to the aforementioned reasons and the realities on the ground are far apart. For example, there is a wide spread  legend that  genetic engineering of crops is not natural. That type of genetic modification probably does not happen naturally. But the fact is that genetic modification happens naturally. Farmers have been crossbreeding plants for centuries, depending on trial-and-error to get the desired results. Biotechnology is a safer, more deliberate way of achieving the desired results.

It is widely believed that planting biotech crops harms the environment. They also don’t know what effects these crops will have on the environment in ten or twenty years. However, the fact is that current farming practices, including the use of pesticides and herbicides, are very harmful to the environment, and to human health—of farmers and consumers—as well. The long-term effect safety assessment of the modified crops are always undertaken.

Anti-GMOs groups also argue that seed companies control the sale and use of biotech seeds. They force farmers to buy expensive seeds and sue farmers who plant biotech crops without their permission. Biotech crops just make poor farmers poorer and seed companies richer. The sources of almost all hybrid non-GM crops are also these companies.

But  the reality on the ground shows that 95% of the 17 million farmers that grew biotech crops in 2018 are small, resource-poor farmers from developing countries.

Others also claim that biotech crops are not safe for animal consumption either. Farm animals that eat biotech crops get sick and even die. Animals in lab tests were shown to have died from eating biotech foods.

Nevertheless, biotech crops have been used for feeds for more than 23 years and there is no record of sickness or fatality. The food and feed safety of the so far modified crops are carefully studied and assured before commercial use by the regulatory authorities.

The other argument is that nutritionally-enhanced biotech rice and other crops is not the best way to solve the nutrient deficiency problem. Other, more effective solutions are already in place. Micronutrient deficiency is not even a big public health issue anymore while global micronutrient deficiency is a health and nutrition issue that result in susceptibility to infectious diseases, mental retardation, and child mortality. This is far from reality, micronutrient deficiency is very critical in developing nations except that they are required in small quantities.

The Solutions

As part of their solution proposal researchers and scientists strongly recommended for all inclusive awareness creation efforts that can address different segments of the public and even scientists to alleviate the misconception challenges against agricultural biotechnology research and development.

To this end, Dr. Daba says: “I strongly suggest that media/journalists, anti-gm groups or any concerned person to directly contact an institute or individual who/which is directly engaged in the activity. We should understand that disseminating wrong and negative information doesn’t help our country as well as our public.”

He said that all the information that a biotech researchers provide should be honest, scientific/evidence based and useful in anyway. “Specially, scientists and media should only disseminate realistic information instead of personal attitudes. ‘What we think or presume cannot be always right.”

Mr. Gudina agrees that the awareness awareness should start from internationally signed protocol on biosafety for which Ethiopia is party to it and then it has to be created on national policies and regulations related to biosafety which is very important to guide implementation of Biotechnology in the country.

“Furthermore, awareness creation is important on the implementation status of biosafety protocol both on the ground (including experiment and translation of polices into actions). With regards to Biotechnology, Ethiopia has developed biotechnology roadmap,” he added.

“The need for centralized information delivery at the initial stage and there should be an accountability for disseminating wrong and unverified information,” Teshome corroborated with the two experts.

As to Teshome, the information source on biotechnology issues should be in one way or another be linked with government organization to get verified information. Leaders should advocate biotech from national policy perspectives.

Finally he underscored:  “Journalists should consider as science and practical solution to some of the production problems not a panacea.”