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Genetically modified seeds and Ghana – The debate

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SeedsGhana is at the cross roads, debating the introduction of genetically modified crops (commonly referred to as GM crops) into the country. Public debates are generally good if conducted in an atmosphere of civility and with the intention of arriving at evidence-based decisions.

The ongoing debate on genetically modified crops is not unusual and the literature on the diffusion of innovations is replete with examples of individuals, groups and or organizations rising up against the introduction of new ideas or technologies. Historical antecedents to debates on new ideas dates back to ancient times and they were all resolved by evidence-based science. Let us recall debates about the flat earth vrs the spherical earth and the sun revolving around the earth vrs the earth revolving around the sun debates. Some people lost their lives but eventually, the new theories proved to be right that the earth is round and that it revolves around the sun. These are evidence based conclusions.

Ghanaians should therefore conduct the current debate not on emotions or ideological inclinations but with available empirical and science-based-evidence.  From what I have heard on the radio and read in the newspapers, it appears that there is lack of information about GM crops and the proponents have failed to put up   convincing arguments for the introduction of the GM crops into Ghana. The scale seems to be tilting in favour of those who oppose the introduction, in spite of the fact that, the premise for their opposition, although sound it may seem, is not based on available facts and evidence. They   have sought to use the media and the streets to shape public opinion and   I would like to contribute to the debate by briefly summarizing the facts about GM crops as we know them today.

Farming became the main occupation of mankind after transitioning from hunting to a sedentary lifestyle.  Since then, farmers in livestock or crops have sought to improve upon their practices and adapt to the environment. This has been done through purposive selection of crops or animals with the best and preferred characteristics for further replanting. Thus, farmers have since time immemorial   kept seeds with a preferred character for replanting or reproduction. This technique of maintaining and improving particular preferred characteristics of a crop or animal became known in modern times as breeding after Mendel proved scientifically that  characters are carried from parental genes to their offspring.  Breeding, simplified is the manipulation of genetic material for desired results/traits/character. And the trait which is the character of interest to the breeder/farmer could be colour, height, yield etc.

Scientists have improved upon this technique and tried crossing closely related genetic material, or   cloning, and by radiation all with the intention of speeding up the breeding techniques used by farmers.  The techniques used by scientists, although shortening the generation of new materials, still took a relatively long time, several years in some cases. They were also limited to using closely related genetic material (relatives).  Genetic engineering is the latest technique in the science of breeding and by far the most sophisticated which allows the introduction of genes from related and unrelated species to another, which the other techniques were unable to do. It is also a much faster process than all the other techniques as scientists are now able to isolate the gene responsible for a particular character and   introduce it directly into the genetic material of another crop. It also has an advantage of dealing with several traits at a time and from a wide range of resources.  Genetically engineered crops commonly called genetically modified (GM)   are therefore a product of a breeding technique, nothing more than that. It is a process where the genetic material of an organism is manipulated by adding a specific useful and preferred gene. It is just another form of gene manipulation breeding.

Why then the debate and controversy?

To begin with, the introduction of GM crops like the introduction of the hybrids in India in the 60s has also received its fair share of resistance to innovations for three main reasons: The first was the fear of bacteria. The first genetically modified crop (tobacco) was encoded with an insecticidal protein from the bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis. Since then, other procedures have evolved that use a naturally soil occurring bacteria called Agrobacterium tumefaciens as a vector in the transfer of genes.  Knowledge in the use of bacteria in the process spread and got stuck and the fear associated with the organism took hold of the campaign against the use of GM crops. It no longer mattered whether the bacteria were useful or harmful.  The second source of concern that has taken more of an ideological path is the source of the GM products. The products have been developed with funding from large multinational corporations and any push for its introduction is seen as a reflection of corporate interests and that these organizations are more interested in their profits rather than the welfare of the poor, especially, in developing countries. The third group of concerns relate to environmental contamination of the newly created plant or animal products.    I also suspect that,   popularization and association of the terms such as engineering and genetic to the breeding technique may also have something to do with the resistance. Sometimes, names do matter! Genetic engineering has been, in all respects, an extension of what human beings have been doing for tens of thousands of years breeding new plants or animals.

What are the facts?

In today’s world and with the advancement in techniques, genetic material used in crops originate from plants although some bacteria could be used as vectors, in a number of cases the genes are transferred directly without a vector. The GM crops currently on the market are aimed at protecting the crop against the incidence of pests, diseases and   higher yields.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO) food from these crops have by far higher standards of evaluation before they are released than crops bred through conventional breeding techniques. For example, all GM crops are screened against allergenicity, whereas crops bred through conventional techniques may not. The regulations and conventions covering the release of GM materials are much stricter to ensure safety for human consumption. Thirty years along the line, since the release of the first GM materials and without any reported adverse side effects on humans, and considering the strict protocol for their release, it is safe to assume that the products are safe. Indeed GM crops are being used to feed animals, cattle and chicken in Brazil, Europe and the US and for all you know, some of these animal products have already found their way to Ghana.

On the cost side, it is important to weigh the benefits as well. It is not a one size fits all as the products vary. Some GM materials on the market are for shelf life enhancement thus reducing post-harvest losses, insect resistance, weed or herbicide resistance, higher yields, and improvement in the nutritive value etc.  Available evidence shows that the purchase and use of GM seeds lead to   overall lower production costs and higher benefits. For example,   a farmer using a weed resistant GM seed will spend less on weeding. Savings can therefore be made on weeding. Moreover, the yield is likely to be higher due to lower weed infestation. The net benefit is a higher yield and income which   more than offset the initial investment made in the purchase of the seed. So the fact that a farmer purchases seed does not automatically lead to loss in income.

Ghanaian farmers are already used to purchasing seeds, from seed yams from the local market (visit Kintampo market during yam planting period) to the purchase of improved maize, cowpea seeds and cassava planting materials from agrochemical companies. The introduction of GM crops will not be the first time that Ghanaian farmers will be purchasing seeds. Farmers have thus become used to buying seeds and the introduction and sale of GM seeds will not make any difference. It is true that some farmers still keep and replant seeds but that should not be generalized to cover the entire farming population. Indeed denying others who would like to make investments in their farming practices and improve their living conditions the chance to purchase GM seeds because others will not, is a discriminatory practice, and their rights should also be protected.  Farmers should be given the choice to decide on their own free will whether to make investments in purchasing seeds or not.

The arguments on the use of farmers own seed is also no longer tenable as GM seeds can be replanted.   The producers of GM materials conceived an idea to introduce what they called terminator gene into GM crops to protect their intellectual property rights. The terminator gene would have prevented replanting but was never used.  Therefore it is possible to replant the seeds; although it is advisable to purchase new seeds each planting season as replanted seeds may lose their vigor.

The concern about multinational/national corporations and their profit intentions is also perplexing. These corporations have operated in the developed and developing countries for years since the introduction of agro-chemicals and improved seeds into farming. They produce all the agro-chemicals that are sold in the developed and developing world and have been making profits all along. They invest and patent the intellectual property on their agro-chemicals just as they patent the seeds they produce and will produce. Why don t we complain about those agro-chemicals being produced by them but the seeds?  I can only surmise that the answer lies somewhere else other than their involvement in GM seeds.  Sometimes, the concerns for the cost of the products to the poor, which is genuine, tend to be dwarfed by ideological aversion for multinational corporations in general, which begs the question what is the alternative? Shouldn t we debate on how to make the products accessible at an affordable cost rather than where it came from?  Today, the cost of agro-chemicals and hybrid seeds produced by these multi-nationals have become far cheaper, and one of the reasons is mass utilization, which effectively reduces overhead costs and thereby making the product affordable to users. So resisting the adoption of GM crops by large number of farmers effectively lead to higher cost for those who have the resources to purchase, it is not the reverse.

On the environment, there are fears that the introduction of GM crops may damage the natural habitats and wildlife and also transfer genes from cultivated species to their wild relatives and inadvertent suppression of immune systems in animals etc. These fears, although they have some merit, it should be noted that all new crops have environmental effects and these hazards are not limited to GM crops. Crops bred through conventional means could also pose environmental risks. Agriculture of any kind impacts the environment. There were indeed instances of environmental breaches in the US during the initial introduction of GM crops and these led to tighter regulations. What is required are the safety regulations which guide their release and use rather than a ban.  It is therefore important that the environmental effects of genetically modified plants just like the health and nutritional aspects be evaluated and continues to be monitored using science-based evidence to prevent un-anticipated effects on the environment and humans.

Whilst the debate is going on, Ghana is behind Burkina Faso and more than 28 other countries who have adopted the GM technology. To date more than 17 million farmers on close to 160 million hectares of land are using GM crops, globally. Countries such as Brazil and India, for example, initially positioned themselves as producers of non-GM crops. They have since then seen the light and made a u-turn and are now major players in GM products and benefiting from their decision to adopt. It is a truism in diffusion science that early adopters reap most of the benefits of the innovation. Ghana is one of those countries yet to move in this direction. The key reason for the adoption of GM materials by these countries is the welfare of the poor and benefits the practice brings to them and the country and not the reverse.  Any   observer of the Ghanaian farming scene knows the difference between those who use improved seeds and those who replant their seeds. Mostly the poor replant and it is advisable to move them out of this practice. The poor therefore stand to lose. In Burkina Faso today,   GM seeds (cotton) are being planted by the poor and their lives are being improved.

In conclusion, I would like to remind readers of a similar scenario enacted in the late 1950s when India and Pakistan at the verge of famine sought to introduce hybrid wheat and rice into their farming systems. The same arguments about health, cost (multinationals) and the environment were raised. The governments of the two countries mustered the political will and imported tons of improved hybrids and crop yields shot up from 1 ton per hectare to an average of 5 tons per hectare through what has become known as the green revolution . India was not only able to produce enough for the country but became a net exporter with benefits to the poor and the country. Sub Saharan Africa stood by and watched these countries reap the benefits. Today, yield levels for most crops in Africa are where India was 50 years ago. It seems that public attention has been focused on the risk side more out of ignorance, emotions and ideologies rather than sound judgment of the benefits of the technique and innovations. Concerns over health and environmental threats are valid and has led to very strict regulations and protocols being put in place by countries and international bodies such as the FAO and WHO, and we should be thankful to those who pointed them out. What is required is the strict compliance, monitoring and enforcement of the guidelines and protocols for GM seeds and foods and not a ban.  Ghana should not be left behind this time around and can no longer afford to ignore science and innovation in farming.

By Dr Charles Annor-Frempong

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One comment

  1. Note that modern techniques are very extensive and can be used to
    modify crops in ways which are beneficial to the corporation, not only
    to the farmer. For example a crop can be changed to require a certain fertilizer for growth. I am sure there are numerous other possibilities. The consequence is that regulations must be very science aware to be effective and positive for farming.