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Ethiopia is reviewing a newly-passed law that could restrict imports of food aid at a time when millions of its people are suffering from severe malnutrition. VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports on the unintended consequences of a regulation designed to protect Ethiopia's biodiversity.
Ethiopia's parliament passed the Proclamation on Bio Safety with little notice on the final day before its summer recess in July. There was no debate, and no dissenting votes.
The proclamation gives the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority power to block the import of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. The idea was to protect the country's diverse life forms against genetically engineered seeds and grains that some scientists believe may pose health hazards.
But EPA regulators soon realized the proclamation also covers the vast majority of the food aid Ethiopia receives.
With the country in the third year of a drought, authorities have just issued an appeal for more aid to feed 6.2 million severely malnourished people.
Member of Parliament Bulcha Demeksa says lawmakers approved the Bio Safety Proclamation without realizing its consequences.
"I do not think the parliament understood it. Because everybody knows that food from Australia and Canada, all of them are produced with genetic engineering, and to say we do not want food from these countries is not tenable, it is not intelligent," Demeksa said.
The United States is by far the largest food-aid donor to Ethiopia. At the moment, the U.S. Agency for International Development has 300,000 metric tons of commodities such as wheat, corn-soy blend and vegetable oil on the way to meet the country's urgent needs.
USAID Country Director Thomas Staal says he has received assurances from Agriculture Ministry officials that the law will not be an obstacle to getting aid to needy Ethiopians.
"We've gotten assurances from them that it's not going to stop our food aid, it's already en route, some of it, and we're working with them trying to provide them input into what we're bringing in, and they're looking at their rules, and there's going to be a number of directives that will sort of roll out this law and those directives are still under discussion," Staal said.
In a telephone interview, Ababu Anage, head of the Ecosystems Department of the Environmental Protection Authority defended the law as necessary to protect human and animal health. But he said enforcement of the new law is still a subject of negotiation.
"We are not saying we will not [permit] any GMOs to this country. We need the GMOs, but we should give emphasis on the bio safety aspect of it," Anage said.
USAID's Thomas Staal says he has emphasized to Ethiopian officials that all American food aid meets U.S. health standards.
"So we do not think it causes any problem with the environment here, and not to people's health or safety. We do not bring in food that we do not eat ourselves in America. And second, we would not bring in any food here that would be unhealthful to the Ethiopian people," said Staal.
Last year, the United States donated close to $700 million worth of food aid to Ethiopia, or 80 percent of the total the Horn of Africa country received.
But many see the aid as inefficient. A U. S. Government Accountability Office report suggested more than 40 percent of the cost of the aid goes for transportation and other overhead costs.
In a speech to parliament last month, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi criticized what he called the 'food aid industry'. He accused 'industry actors' of deliberately inflating the number of Ethiopians in need of aid, and suggested their motive is more about profit than about saving lives.