GENET archive


8-Misc: Interview with Tewolde Berhan Egziabher

-------------------------------- GENET-news --------------------------------

TITLE:  Fighting back
SOURCE: New Scientist magazine, interview by Ehsan Masood
DATE:   January 20, 2001

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Fighting back

[Photo: EPA, tewolde.jpg]

As Africa's spokesman on biotech issues at the UN, Tewolde Berhan Egziabher 
has taken on the West and won. He has convinced developing countries to 
hold off licensing genetically modified crops until more is known about the 
risks. He has also managed to get member states of the Organisation of 
African Unity to consider adopting a law that will ban patents on genes. 
The influence wielded by Egziabher, who heads Ethiopia's environmental 
protection authority, has got biotech companies and the US government 
worried. The US in particular fears that his ideas could isolate Africa 
further, but Egziabher doesn't see it that way. Ehsan Masood spoke to a 
past master of diplomacy and deal-making

Ethiopia has a rich history but in the West it's known chiefly for war and 
famine . . .

The question is, why famine?

That has never been asked and that's also the heart of the problem now when 
we think about new technologies such as GM. We had those famines not 
because the country cannot produce food. In 1984 to 1985, the years of the 
worst famine, northwestern Ethiopia had heaps of grain, rotting, waiting 
for lorries to take them to areas where it was needed. Moreover, 85 per 
cent of the population is still rural with no access to financial resources 
other than crops grown by families. If a bad season turns up, families have 
no grain, and therefore no income. So, when there is food, they can't buy 

Why is Ethiopia so poor?

Ethiopia kept the world out for centuries until the Second World War, when 
the Italians tried to colonise in a five-year effort that didn't succeed. 
But it did help to challenge Ethiopia to mix with the outside world. The 
country has had to accommodate huge changes in two generations, when many 
other countries have taken two centuries to deal with them. It is a country 
that is in a mess trying to come to terms with its past, and at the same 
time emerging into the present.

What would you say is Ethopia's most pressing environmental problem?

Land degradation, loss of vegetation, trees, soil erosion and increased 
destruction of hydrological resources.

Would it help if you introduced crops that are genetically modified to grow 
in less than ideal conditions?

I don't believe that there can be crops that would withstand continuing 
land degradation. Such crops will need some water. But there is no water. 
You can't manage a crop that grows on bare rock.

If GM crops aren't the answer, how else could Ethiopia use Western aid and 

Number one, Westerners in developing countries should not interfere with 
what we're doing. Very often they come with simplified recipes that cause 
more problems than solutions. I think they should stop prescribing 
solutions. If they want to help, they should go into partnership based on 
genuine dialogue. Then they could provide technical help when they are 
asked for specific technical inputs.

Are you against genetic engineering?

No. I am definitely not. I am neither anti nor pro any technology. A 
technology is as good as the combination of our needs and its promise. I 
don't idolise any particular technology. Genetic engineering is just one 

Why do you think the US is so gung-ho about GM crops?

When the UN Biosafety Protocol was being negotiated, countries led by the 
US were feeling on top of the world. They felt that the public was behind 
them. They controlled exports of major crop commodities, and thought they 
could dictate to the world. But that has now been undermined as the 
American public follows the path of the Europeans as it begins to realise 
that there could be serious risks with genetically engineered products.

You argue that we shouldn't use GM products until scientists are sure 
they're safe--possibly for another 10 years. This logic has never applied 
to other technologies, such as mobile phones. Why is GM different?

Just because we have been committing mistakes in the past doesn't mean that 
we must continue to make them. We need to learn from previous mistakes. DDT 
wasn't immediately seen to be poisonous to humans but it turns out to have 
a very insidious impact. If mobile phones are useful for only 10 years, 
then they might as well be scrapped. But if they continue to be useful, a 
delay of 10 years to make sure that they're safe wouldn't be such a major 
hurdle for humanity.

In fact, we've had GM food in some form for almost a decade and there's 
been no apparent serious harm to human health or the environment. Doesn't 
that meet your time limit?

Well, that would assume all GM organisms and their products are the same. 
One genetically engineered product that is consumed and hasn't shown any 
demonstrable problems so far doesn't mean the next one will be the same.

On that basis, then, how could GM technology ever be commercialised?

I wouldn't go to the extent of saying we don't want the technology. I would 
agree that any technology should be tried, but discontinued if it creates 
more problems than advantages. Nuclear technology is an example of this. It 
came with big promise but tremendous problems, and is now being scaled 
down. In comparison, the problems created by other forms of power 
generation seem to be easier to deal with. If we turn out to be wrong about 
nuclear power, I'm happy to go back and expand it. All I'm saying is we 
must be vigilant and we must observe. In the case of genetic engineering, 
we are changing the nature of individual organisms, so our period of 
observation must be long and extensive.

Realistically, isn't it too late to call a halt to GM food? The horse has 
bolted . . .

There are many horses. If one horse has bolted and you allow a thousand 
others to bolt, you would be making the same mistake a thousand times. What 
I'm saying is that if one particular horse has bolted, let's observe it and 
learn from it. Now that we're wiser, let's not allow the others to bolt 

You're also opposed to the current system of patents on genes. What's your 

I am not pushing for an alternative patenting system. I want a system that 
minimises the destruction of the existing system. As things are, an 
American company could hold the rights to a crop or plant variety that 
originates in Ethiopia - and claim royalties from Ethiopians who use it. If 
this happens, it would be tragic. It could make a mockery of the patenting 
system. It could also cause a lot of hardship. It is in our interest to 
prevent this from happening. This is why countries in Africa are being 
encouraged to adopt laws that would prohibit the patenting of living 
things, and which would give farmers access to - and the rights to - 
replanting crops they use without paying royalties.

Such laws would be a direct challenge to the World Trade Organization, 
which requires its members to sign up to the world's current system. If an 
African country wants to benefit from free trade, won't it have to ignore 
your advice?

We believe that the model law [with a clause banning patents on genes] is 
compatible with existing WTO rules. But even within the WTO, the issue of 
patenting life is in disarray. Remember what happened at the last WTO 
meeting in Seattle . . .

What is wrong with current laws on gene patenting? How else should 
scientists protect their inventions from piracy?

That's my problem. It's a contradiction to say "living thing" and 
"invention". As far as I know, there isn't one living thing that has been 
invented. This means that it cannot be patented either. Secondly, even if 
you assume that an individual organism has been invented, the next 
generation, the offspring of that individual, is created through a natural 
process of reproduction. It is not invented. And it is not the same as its 
parent. How, then, could it be covered by the same patent as its parent?

Isn't Dolly, the cloned sheep, an invention?

She is still a sheep. All that has happened is that she contains the same 
cells as one of her parents. I don't think the makers claim they have 
invented it. They have only made it possible for the natural process of 
cellular division to start all over again.

Patents on life aren't really patents on genes. Often they are patents on 
the process used to discover a particular gene sequence...

I have no problem with the patenting of processes. And there are many 
achievements that I recognise. If society feels these deserve recognition, 
then those who contributed to engineering or modifying things that do not 
occur in nature should be compensated in some way. But it isn't just 
processes that are being patented, but also constructs. A construct is a 
combination of one particular gene and other genes together. That's not a 

But both the European Patent Office and the US Patent Office insist they 
will not grant a patent on a raw gene sequence. It has to be novel, not 
exist in nature, and it should represent an inventive step . . .

Yes. Why do you say "inventive step"? Why not "invention"? The word has 
been modified so that the difference between a discovery and an invention 
is now blurred. If you discover one thing, then discover something else, 
bring the two together, and then patent the process of bringing them 
together, I would have no problem. But the pieces that have been brought 
together cannot be patented, because they still are living things.

Monsanto is reported to have said that it was wrong to evangelise about the 
benefits of GM food without talking of the risks, and in future promises 
not to use human or animal genes in food . . .

I'm glad to hear that.

But aren't large multinational corporations too unwieldy to change years-
old practices overnight?

I don't know. I have never been involved with multinational companies. I've 
never been rich in my life--I've always worried about the last 5 cents. 
This is a world beyond me. I certainly feel very uncomfortable when a vast 
multinational company based in St Louis or Washington DC, or London, 
controls the agricultural production system in a small village in my 
country. Certainly, the further this control extends, the less sensitive 
the system becomes to local needs and the more problematic agricultural 
production becomes. I don't have to believe or disbelieve what Monsanto 
says or does. Assuming they do what they say, it is good.

If the head of Monsanto phoned you tomorrow and said let's talk, would you 

Yes, I would talk to him with pleasure.

Would there be any preconditions?

I am not sure I would call them preconditions. I would say that he is not 
to use the might of his money to destroy what I say and turn it into 
propaganda. The only condition would be that there is an assurance of 

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