Professor Walter Alhassan, Coordinator, Project on Strengthening Capacity for Safe Biotechnology Management in Sub-Saharan Africa (SABIMA), says biotechnology is crucial to the pursuit of global food security since conventional crop improvement alone cannot guarantee human nutritional needs.
Biotechnology is the use of living organisms to produce a product or service such as tools of tissue culture, molecular characterization for identification purposes in plant breeding, diagnostics, fermentation and genetic engineering.
Professor Alhassan, who launched the 2011 Global Status Report on Commercialized Biotechnology and Genetically Modified (GM) Crops in Accra, said no single approach could feed the projected world’s population of nine billion by 2050.
The launch, which is the sixth in the series promotes awareness creation on biotechnology, progress made and challenges to be addressed to promote use of the technology to address global agriculture needs.
According to the report, the most compelling testimony to biotech crops is that, in the period 1996 to 2011, millions of farmers in 29 countries worldwide, made more than 100 million independent decisions to plant and replant an accumulated hectarage of 1.25 billion.
It said one principal reason underpins the trust and confidence of risk-averse farmers in the technology and noted that biotech crops deliver sustainable and substantial, socioeconomic and environmental benefits.
Prof. Alhassan explained that though Ghana’s biotechnology Bill has received presidential assent, there was still more work to be done especially in the area of education to optimize productivity and contribute to food, fiber security and address climate change.
He noted that with modern biotechnology, intractable pests and diseases of plants and animals could be controlled, enhanced nutrition as well as help plants cope with diverse soil conditions, droughts, high salt contents and poor soil fertility.
“After 15 years of commercial GM crops, perceived risks such as toxicity, destruction of non target organisms and allergenecity have been proven scientifically. Nevertheless, there is need for precaution as the use of the technology is promoted,” he added.
Giving highlights of the report, Prof. Alhassan said the five leading developing countries in biotechnology crops were China in Asia, Brazil and Argentina in Latin America and South Africa on the African continent.
“In 2011, a record 16.7 million farmers, up 1.3 million or 8% from 2010, grew biotech crops – notably over 90%, or 15 million, were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries; farmers are the masters of risk aversion and in 2011, a record 7 million small farmers in China and another 7 million in India, elected to plant 14.5 million hectares of Bt cotton” he said.
He noted that developing countries grew 50 per cent of global biotech crops in 2011 and are expected to exceed industrial country hectarage in 2012. In 2011, growth rate for biotech crops was twice as fast, and twice as large, in developing countries, at 11% or 8.2 million hectares, versus 5% or 3.8 million hectares in industrial countries.
On future prospects, the report said it looked encouraging for the next five years, with drought tolerant maize in 2012; golden rice in 2013 and Bt rice before the Millennium Development Goals of 2015 to potentially benefit one billion poor people rice households.
“Biotech crops can make an enormous contribution to the 2015 MDG goal of cutting poverty in half by optimizing crop productivity in proposed global initiative,” the report said.
The report called for an urgent need for appropriate, science-based and cost effective regulation that is responsible, rigorous but onerous for poor developing countries and for the European Union.
Dr Yaa Difie Osei, a Lecturer at the Bio-Chemistry Department, University of Ghana, Legon, said the technology has since immemorial been used for brewing beer, pito (locally brewed beer), making of cheese, vaccines among other but unfortunately its use in agriculture has been a problem area.
She said the benefits of Genetically Modified (GM) crops such as high yield, drought resistant and herbicide tolerant, reduced farm cost and reduced health hazard due to non use of pesticide and increased shelf life.
According to Dr Osei, biotechnology had the potential of doubling food production, nutrition and helps to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015 adding that the technology was growing and Ghana needed to take advantage of it.
Mrs. Linda Asante Agyei, Country Coordinator for West Africa Communicators of Biotechnology, who shared the experience of a Ghanaian delegation to Burkina Faso to learn firsthand the use of the technology in growing cotton, said the group recommended that Ghana should design a training model to be translated into local languages for farmers to understand and embrace the technology.
Burkina Faso farmers say the new technology has enabled them to save the money used on pesticide and that the technology requires less labour and affords them the opportunity to engage in other activities and that income generated was enormous” she added.
She said in Burkina Faso, farmers heap their harvested cotton in an open space unlike their Ghanaian counterparts who put them in an enclosed area and sprinkle water on it to make it gain weight for profit.
Unfortunately, this approach by Ghanaian farmers has led to the rejection of their produce because it did not meet international standards, she said.
A 94-fold increase from 1.7 million hectares in 1996 to 160 million hectares in 2011, makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history, the Biotechnology 2011 report revealed.