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Ghana begins field trials for GM cotton and rice

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GM riceGhana has started limited field trials for genetically modified cotton and rice crops in selected areas of the country.

This follows approval from Ghana’s National Biosafety Committee (NBC) to conduct such tests, following promulgation of the country’s Biosafety Act, 2011 (Act 831) and research conducted by the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) -Savanna Agric. Research Institute (SARI), Nyankpala, Tamale.

Field trials for Bt. rice which commenced in June is taking place in Fumesua in the Ashanti Region, while field cultivation for Bt. cotton, which also started June 30, 2013, are still ongoing at six locations in six districts of the country.

The sites and districts are Kpalkore in the Mion District, Natagu in the Saboba District; Walewale, West Mamprusi District; Pieng, Sissala East District; Pulima, Sissala West and Yobzeri in the Tolon District, all in Ghana’s Northern Region.

Confined on-station field trials have also been approved in Ghana and structures already put in place for Bt. Cowpea as well as for High Protein Sweet Potato, although planting is yet to start.

These were disclosed at a day’s media training and sensitization workshop on Ghana’s current biotechnology status in Accra, July 31, 2013 organised by CSIR in collaboration with the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA).

Explaining why Ghana has chosen to undertake field trials for Bt Cotton, Dr. Emmanuel Chamba, Plant Breeder and Principal Investigator for Bt Cotton research at the CSIR-Savanna Agric. Research Institute (SARI), Nyankpala, Tamale, said it is because although cotton has been identified as an important cash crop in the North, it has two main insect pests (Bollworm complex and Sucking pests), constraining its flourishing.

And these, he indicated can be well taken care of by the Bt cotton, according to research conducted.

“We realised that Burkina Faso, which is our next door neighbour is growing Bt Cotton commercially and as a result of that they are making a lot of progress in their cotton industry. First of all, the farmers are getting very high yields and as a result they are getting good income out of that and apart from that we also realised that Bt Cotton saves farmers a lot of time and energy and also we thought because with the Bt, it is resistant to the major insect pests in cotton production – the Bollworm complex,”

“We are able to eliminate this group of insect pests and as a result of that we no longer do about six to eight times spraying during the growing season but only two. And this is able to take care of the attacking pests which are often a problem,” Dr. Chamba supplied further in an interview.

He divulged that currently CSIR is investigating the gains derived from the Bt Cotton strain as reported by their compatriots in Burkina Faso, to see if Ghana will benefit from similar gains.

Admitting that it will be very difficult to determine how long it will take to determine the Bt Cotton’s adaptation to Ghana, the Principal Investigator said the research institute had however been given a three-year licence by the National Biosafety Committee to conduct their investigations.

Touching on precautionary measures put in place to ensure the cotton stays confined in the demonstration areas, Dr. Emmanuel Chamba assured early and timely harvesting in six to seven months to prevent any straying of the Bt Cotton.

In a separate interview, Dr. Margaret Ottah Atikpo, CSIR Crop Research Institute, stated that if the trials being conducted for genetically modified rice at Fumesua proves successful it will enable Ghana to grow rice that is nitrogen and water efficient as well as salt tolerant.
“So that where the soils are poor, it doesn’t matter, it is supposed to thrive. You can grow it where you don’t have swamps and even where there is salt in the soil you can grow it,” she stressed.

Speaking on “The Role of Agricultural Biotechnology in Food Security in Ghana”, Dr. Stephen Amoah, a research scientist at CSIR, Kumasi, noted that its importance lies in the fact that although agriculture contributes nearly 40% of Ghana’s gross domestic product (GDP) and provides employment for over 60% of the population with over 80% of rural population having their main livelihood centred on agriculture, production is beset with a myriad of constraints.

“These include declining soil fertility, pests, diseases, low yields of crops, drought, floods, post-harvest losses among others,” he added.

According to Dr. Amoah, to attain food security for Ghana’s population of over 24 million growing at a rate of 2.7% per year and estimated to reach 33 million by the year 2030, the entire populace must have access to sufficient food at all times.

“Increased agricultural production cannot come from area expansion since land is a limited resource. Neither can it come from any significant expansion in irrigated area due to competition for water with urban demand and rising environmental problems. There is therefore the need to embrace new technology that will enable us increase production on limited land area with limited water supply,” he said.

Dr. Stephen Amoah cautioned that although agricultural production in Ghana has increased in recent years, much of the increase has come about as a result of the expansion of cultivated area on which an increasing rural population has used traditional farming methods.

“Available cultivable land is increasingly becoming limited. In order to increase production on sustainable basis, there is the need to increase output per unit land area. This can be achieved largely through genetic improvement and adoption of improved agronomic practices,” he stated.

Modern biotechnology, which is also known as Molecular Biotechnology, Genetic Modification (GM) and Genetic engineering (GE) enables genes to be taken from any source and put into any organism and augments conventional crop/animal breeding.

According to Mr. Eric Amaning Okoree, Secretary to the National Biosafety Committee and Deputy Director, Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI), Ghana currently has a biosafety regulation, which is legislative instrument (LI) 1887 based on the CSIR Act. This has been adopted to allow work on biotechnology for research purposed under confinement.

On the whole however, Biosafety in Ghana is based on other legal instruments such as the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety which Ghana has ratified, the Biosafety Act, 2011 (Act 831) and Biosafety Regulations, 2013.

He indicated nonetheless, that what is left to be done is certification of inspectors from the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) yet to be established, as well as the regulatory agencies. An Appeals Tribunal as prescribed by the Biosafety Act will also have to be established.

By Edmund Smith-Asante

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