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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 December, 2003, 00:44 GMT
West 'risks new Ethiopia famine'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Hungry child
Will Ethiopians starve again?
Ethiopia's efforts to feed itself and avoid another famine are being fatally undermined by Western policy, a senior scientist has told BBC News Online.

Dr Tewolde Egziabher, of the country's Environmental Protection Authority, says it can become self-sufficient.

But he says the Western insistence on private sector answers to hunger means Ethiopia cannot construct food stores.

So it has been unable to save the grain left over from good harvests to see its people through subsequent lean years.

Obstructing progress

Dr Tewolde, who represents Ethiopia at many international meetings and is in effect its environment minister, was speaking to BBC News Online here.

Vegetables in market
This year's harvest is promising
He said Western institutions were determined to allow only the private sector to secure its food supply, and this was preventing the government from raising the loans it needed to build granaries and depots.

In the mid-1980s almost a million Ethiopians are believed to have starved to death, and there is concern that millions more could soon be suffering severe hunger.

Asked about the probability of another devastating famine, Dr Tewolde said: "Ethiopia will avoid a food crisis only if the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the US Agency for International Development allow us to raise the loans we need.

"Last year about 14 million people, less than a quarter of the population, depended on foreign food aid. This year's harvest is likely to be 60% up on last year's.

"But the Bank, the IMF and Usaid are stopping us borrowing the money to build the stores, the roads and the other infrastructure we need to conserve what's left over.

No action

"I have no doubt Ethiopia could grow enough to feed itself: many years it produces a surplus, and the farmers don't know what to do with all the grain.

Dr Tewolde Egziabher   A Kirby
Dr Tewolde: Biodiversity champion
"The problem is that many people don't have the cash to buy it, and the country hasn't the means to store it.

"For three years from 1999 onwards, we had bumper harvests. If we had an effective private sector we'd have begun building up reserves then, but it didn't happen.

"The North's preoccupation with the supposed potential of the private sector risks preventing us moving towards self-sufficiency, and could possibly create the conditions for another famine.

"I'm not saying it's a deliberate attempt to make us dependent on foreign aid, though. I think it's more a matter of dogma."

Open-minded critic

The desperation of Ethiopians 20 years ago stung the conscience of the world, and provoked a huge international response.

Dr Tewolde, a biologist who completed his doctorate at the University of Wales, UK, led the developing countries in the negotiations which produced the Cartagena Protocol on biosafety.

Grain sacks   A Kirby
Farmers "do not know what to do with surplus grain"
In 2000 he was a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes known as "the alternative Nobel Prize", for "his exemplary work to safeguard biodiversity and the traditional rights of farmers and communities to their genetic resources".

Perhaps surprisingly, he does not rule out the possibility that genetically modified (GM) crops might help countries like Ethiopia.

Dr Tewolde says he does not oppose GMs in principle, but wants extreme caution in their introduction, and believes they should be under public control.

Judged on its merits

He said: "The world has gone nuts. It's the first time you have a new technology like this left entirely in private hands.

"The private sector has emerged as a new god in the last 15 years, and we have to prove this god is fallible."

He told BBC News Online: "I want universities and other public institutions involved in GM research, and I want the results kept in public hands - in other words, no more patents of GM organisms.

"As it stands, it's a technology I don't trust, because it's promoted by vested interests. I want to see it freed from its ensnarement by commerce, so it can be tried in its own right."

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