Ethiopian biotech institute planned

Center, slated to cost $1.8 million, has goal of fighting hunger and poverty in the region

By | November 15, 2005

Ethiopia will get its first Agricultural Biotechnology Research Institute (ABRI) by next year, with the goal of exploiting the region's biological resources, and providing sustainable economic development. Many scientists said that the institute can provide long-term solutions to problems plaguing the country, including poverty and hunger.

"We cannot just beg and keep distributing food to the people forever," said Tilahun Zeweldu, former coordinator of Ethiopia's program for capacity of national agricultural biotechnology, who helped to plan ABRI. The new institute could present long-term solutions by, for instance, improving plant products through modification, thereby boosting Ethiopia's farming and exports, he said. "We should start giving (Ethiopians) the means to produce food," Zeweldu told The Scientist in an Email.

The ABRI is part of the overall agricultural research capacity building project funded by a World Bank loan, and will be part of the Holetta Agricultural Research Center, about 45 kilometers from Addis Ababa. Its goal is to train African researchers, and supply them with resources for experiments. In addition, scientists hope the ABRI will serve as a central facility for research in molecular biology, genetic transformation, diagnostics, genomics and bioinformatics -- in turn, advancing agricultural biotechnology development and protecting plant genetic resources. One advantage of having a biotechnology institute in Ethiopia is its location, known to be rich in biological diversity, scientists said.

But some scientists questioned the institute's apparent focus, stressing the need for addressing local problems and concerns. Delphin Diasolua Ngudi, a senior researcher at the Ministry of Health in the Democratic Republic of Congo, told The Scientist that the new institute must investigate solutions to African's problems, not the Western World's – for instance, work on creating plants that are resistant to heat, not to cold. An African biotechnology institute "must focus on problems such as improving food security, increasing productivity, reducing pest management costs and, finally, fighting hunger and poverty," he said. Zeweldu, however, insisted that the institute will focus on Ethiopia, not the outside world, adapting "biotechnology tools developed in the west to solve Ethiopia's agricultural problems," Zeweldu said.

ABRI's research programs are expected to include a variety of fields, including propagation of local plants using plant cell and tissue culture technology, production of improved local crops using genes isolated from natural resources, investigations into animal health and reproduction, and the production of bio-fertilizers and biological controls.

Ferman Lambein of the Institute for Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries in Belgium noted that ABRI could also help the region with bioeconomy, or developing and commercializing new biotechnology products. In Ethiopia and the rest of Africa, simply giving people emergency food is not a long-term solution to Ethiopia's problems, Lambein noted. Moreover, local farmers will be more likely to accept high yielding and good quality plant varieties – sometimes genetically modified -- developed at home than varieties developed under high intellectual property-restrictions in other regions, even if distributed freely as aid, he added.

Still, in order to succeed, the institute must establish a reliable infrastructure, Lambein told The Scientist. "A biochemical needed today and arriving six or twelve months later, a failure in electrical power supply, and unreliable supply of gas for laboratory work can spoil the work of previous months or years," Lambein explained. "Without such stable facilities, a trained biotechnologist will not stay in an environment where he loses his 'market value' by not publishing regular progress, brain drain will continue, and ABRI will only be a big show."

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