By Fred Yaw Sarpong
After Ghana becoming a signatory to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety in 1992, it has a mandate to implement anything under this protocol, especially when the country has passed into law Ghana’s Biosafety Bill (Act 831) on 31st December 2011.
However, the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), which the bill envisages as the implementing agency of the law, is yet to be inaugurated by the President.
Before Ghana’s Biosafety Law come into force, a lot has been done at the national level to complement the protocol, since it was ratified on 29 December, 1993. While awaiting the passing of the Biosafety Law, a Legislative Instrument 1887 was passed on 30 November 2007 to allow for laboratory research in modern biotechnology.
The introduction of Policies, Legislations and Regulations for biotechnology/biosafety is to enhance the implementation of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.
Although there are no genetically modified (GM) crops in the country, Ghanaians are gradually becoming aware of genetically modified crops through the print and electronic media. There are a lot of both positive and negative information about genetically modified crops.
After the passage of the Biosafety law, a lot has taken place to introduce biosafety crops in the country. The National Biosafety Committee (NBC) has engaged stakeholders notably regulatory agencies, academia, researchers, farmers, civil society and policy makers in awareness creation and training workshops about biosafety.
Research Institutions and academia as well as the regulatory agencies have made significant improvements in physical facilities paving the way for relevant research in modern biotechnology in Ghana.
Through the West African Agricultural Productivity Project (WAAPP), the World Bank is funding the construction of a Regional Centre of Specialization at the Crops Research Institute at Fumesua. It is believe to be a Centre of Excellence for modern biotechnology. The Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana also has a mobile molecular biology laboratory which is facilitating the research in all parts of the country.
In terms of human resource capacity building, the Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) has created a biosafety unit with experts trained in biosafety. Some of the tertiary institutions have also been churning out graduates in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology.
The Department of Biochemistry of the University of Ghana has been renamed the Department of Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology to reflect the modern biotechnology courses being taught. The West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) on the main campus of the University of Ghana at Legon, has been offering graduate courses in molecular genetics, plant virology and plant genetics as well as plant and tissue culture biology.
In general, more and more Ghanaian scientists have been specializing in advanced molecular biology and biotechnology. Several scientists have also participated in the Stewardship training under the “Strengthening Capacity in the Safe Management of Agricultural Biotechnology in Sub Saharan Africa Project” (SABIMA).
Ghanaians are involved in research in biotechnology including molecular characterization and diversity studies of crops, molecular marker assisted breeding, molecular (DNA) diagnosis of crop viral diseases and tissue culture.
Although some Ghanaians have the expertise for genetic transformations, the country does not have the requisite infrastructure. Several capacity building workshops in biotechnology, biosafety, review of applications, conduct of confined field trials, monitoring of field trials, environmental and food safety assessments have been conducted for regulators, researchers, academia and the media.
Ghanaians have also benefitted from “seeing is believing” study tours to South Africa, Burkina Faso, Kenya and United States of America where genetically modified crops are under production either commercially or confined field trials.
Biotechnology is a new area in our part of the world and traditionally people have difficulty accepting a new way of doing things when they are used to their old ways and the situation is no different when it comes to biotech.
Despite all these initiatives by Ghanaian authorities, there are some citizens who believe the introduction of GM crops into Ghana will kill and destroy our traditional farming practices. For instance, Friends of the Earth and other Farm Based Organizations (FBO) have vehemently opposed the introduction of GM crops in Ghana.
They have argued that the introduction of GM crops in Ghana will forever destroy our farm lands, farmers will have to struggle for seeds and above all consumer’s health is at stake.
But the Director General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Dr. Abdulai B. Salifu’s opinion is different from what those in civil society organization (CSR) are saying. Dr. Salisu said in an interview that food security is very important. “The hunger in Africa alone reopens the introduction of GM foods into the continent,” he added.
“Some people are of the view that they will need food that will kill them in over 30 years rather than eating what will kill them in just two years time,” he stated.
“Can someone tell me, whether we have heard that someone has died as a result of eating GM foods in Ghana or any other part of the world?” He asked.
Dr. Salisu emphatically said that unlike GM crops or food, there is no crop that has gone through a thorough and vigorous system of assessment and analysis before its consumption.
The CSIR Director General told some journalists last month at Aburi that, what is not good for Ghanaians is to take a gene of a human being and place it into tomatoes and to generate food out of that. “But there is no harm in taking a gene from tomatoes and place it into another tomatoes, in order to generate a GM tomatoes from that,” said Dr. Salisu.
A Research Scientist at the Savanna Agriculture Research Institute, Dr Ibrahim Kwasi Atokple, has claimed that GM foods are safe and have no adverse health implications as widely speculated.
Dr. Atokple did not agree with CSOs and emphasized that a number of research have been ongoing since the introduction of GM products onto some markets in the world to ascertain whether or not the products have any negative health effects; but no such case has yet been discovered.
"So far, nobody has reported of any side effects," he said.
He noted that the arguments by the individuals and groups against the introduction of GM foods have no basis, and without any scientific evidence.
He however admitted that "there may be few allergies, but even with the conventional crops there are allergies. Several tests are going on with evaluation but nothing has been found yet."
Dr. Atokple spoke recently to the media at a training workshop on Plant Breeding Genetics and Biosciences for Farming in Africa. The workshop, held in Accra, brought together selected journalists from the print and electronic media across the country.
According to the Ghana Statistical Service (GSS), Provisional estimates for 2012 gross domestic product (GDP) showed a growth of 7.1 percent over the 2011 revised estimates. Agriculture as one of the contributors recorded the lowest growth of 2.6%.
Though the estimates show an improvement in the growth of the Agriculture sector compared to 2011 (0.8%), its contribution to the economy continues to decline, with its share reducing from 25.6 percent of GDP to 23.1%. Crops, however, remain the largest activity in the economy with a share of 19.3 percent of GDP. They also include cocoa 3.4%, livestock 1.7%, forestry and logging 2.1% and fishing 1.5%.
With these low statistical outputs from GSS, are we safe to say that it is time for Ghana to seriously consider the introduction of GM crops to ensure food security? Should we say GM crops will be preferable more to our traditional crops?
Nana Konadu is a farmer at Okurase in the Akuapem North District of the Eastern Region of Ghana. He has over 13 hectares of farm land made up of maize, plantain, and cassava.
“As a farmer I decided to apply fertilizer on one part of the maize farm to see the difference. All various farming methods were applied to those farm lands. To my surprise, I realized the farm without fertilizer performed well with good yields, far more than the farm with fertilizer. This made the farmers in the community decide not to do anything with fertilizer on their farms.” Konadu pointed out.
How would farmers in Ghana who have for so many years been using traditional seeds and methods to farm be convinced that the GM crops and its seeds are better for them, and for that matter they should go for it?
The Africa Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF) has said Agriculture is under threat in Africa. According to the foundation 60%-70% of the African population depends on agriculture for their livelihood.
But it says only 4% of cropped land has access to irrigation. Also, 33% of cropped land is subject to moderate drought, while 25% are subject to severe drought and climate change is predicted to make things even worse.
In Ghana, rice importation is common. The country imports 60% of rice annually and this amounted to US$300 million in 2012. Statistics from the Irrigation Development Authority (IDA) under the Ministry of Food and Agriculture (MOFA) indicates that only 0.2% of irrigable lands are in use.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agric Biotech Applications (ISAAA), biotech crop hectares increased by an unprecedented 100-fold, from 1.7 million hectares in 1996, to 170 million hectares in 2012, making biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history.
ISAAA stated in its brief for Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops for 2012 that a record of 170.3 million hectares of biotech crops were grown globally in 2012, at an annual growth rate of 6%, up 10.3 million from 160 million hectares in 2011. 2012 was the 17th year of commercialization of biotech crops, which is from 1996 to 2012, when growth continued after a remarkable 16 consecutive years of increases.
It’s noted that of the 28 countries which planted biotech crops in 2012, 20 were developing and 8 were industrial countries. This compares with 19 developing and 10 industrial in 2011. Thus there are three times as many developing countries growing biotech crops as there are industrial countries.
From the ISAAA, global value of biotech seed alone was US$15 billion in 2012. A 2011 study estimated that the cost of discovery, development and authorization of a new biotech crop/trait is US$135 million.
In 2012, the global market value of biotech crops, estimated by Cropnosis, was US$14.84 billion, (up from US$13.35 billion in 2011); this represents 23% of the US$64.62 billion global crop protection market in 2012, and 35% of the US$34 billion commercial seed market.
The estimated global farm-gate revenues of the harvested commercial “end product” (the biotech grain and other harvested products) are more than 10 times greater than the value of the biotech seed alone.
Africa continued to make progress with South Africa increasing its biotech area by a record 0.6 million hectares to reach 2.9 million hectares; Sudan joined South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt, to bring the total number of African biotech countries to four.
In South Africa the hectarage occupied by biotech crops in 2012 continued to increase for the 15th consecutive season, driven mainly by increased hectarage under maize and soybeans. The estimated total biotech crop area in 2012 was 2.9 million hectares, compared with 2.3 million hectares in 2011/2012, an impressive 26% annual increase in area.
The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity defines 'biotechnology' as: "Any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use.” In other words, biotechnology can be defined as the mere application of technical advances in life science to develop commercial products. Modern usage of biotech also includes genetic engineering as well as cell and tissue culture technologies.
Biosafety is one of the issues addressed by the Convention. This concept refers to the need to protect human health and the environment from the possible adverse effects of the products of modern biotechnology.
At the same time, modern biotechnology is recognized as having a great potential for the promotion of human well-being, particularly in meeting critical needs for food, agriculture and health care.
In accordance with the precautionary approach contained in Principle 15 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the objective of this Protocol is to contribute to ensuring an adequate level of protection in the field of the safe transfer, handling and use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology that may have adverse effects on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity, taking also into account risks to human health, and specifically focusing on trans-boundary movements.
Should we to stick to our traditional way of farming or should we consider going for GM crops to feed our growing population of 25 million?
I believe it is time for some serious debate on this issue. We cannot afford to slip into the dreaded situation of food insecurity. The consequences will be too dire for our dear nation and the future of its people.