Some scientists are warning the agricultural sector will struggle if suggestions by the Agriculture Minister that Ghana will only have use for Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) technology in 100 years become national policy.
Reacting to a statement by the minister Dr Akoto Owusu Afriyie that Ghana does not need GMOs, the scientists insisted farmers and consumers deserve to have a choice in deciding how crops are grown with no option closed to them.
The scientists point out that with fellow West African country Nigeria commercialising GMOs, it will not be prudent for Ghana to lag behind because the varieties will find their way through the borders even without approval.
“I m a scientist. I believe in science. GMO is a method of science. But it’s like cracking a nut with a sledgehammer. Ghana does not need to go GMOs… Forget about GMOs. There is no GMO in what we are doing.
“It’s only when we have exhausted all the beautiful work done by our own scientists that we may have to fall on it, and that will be another 100 years,” the minister said.
He told a government organised fair in Accra that Ghanaian universities and science research institutions have developed a lot of improved varieties using conventional breeding methods. Government’s interest, he said, is in getting those varieties into the hands of farmers.
“There is a lot that our scientists have done using traditional breeding methods, not GMO methods. They have come up with short gestation varieties, disease resistance varieties, drought resistance varieties, you will be amazed by the range that we have. And we don’t need GMOs. And I can assure you, this government is not here for GMOs,” Dr Afriyie added.
Prof. Walter Alhassan who is a scientist and retired Director-General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) disagrees.
He points out nothing stops Ghana from adopting GMO technology along with other conventional breeding methods, explaining they are not mutually exclusive.
“The reference to numerous crop varieties developed by the CSIR and universities sitting on the shelf and advocating their clearance before introducing GM is even more greatly flawed.
“Breeding is a continuous process to produce new varieties that meet demand; GM or non-GM. These will not wait for clearance from the shelf before new ones are introduced,” he observed.
“As scientists are exposed to new breeding tools and as the concept of demand-led breeding gains grounds, new tools will be used and new varieties will be churned out to meet the demand for superior new varieties. If the superior new varieties are GM, they will be released under the applicable laws,” Prof. Alhassan added.
Dr Mumuni Abdulai who is a scientist at the Savannah Agricultural Research Institute points out its not accurate the impression that conventional varieties are developed by local scientists whilst GMOs are by outsiders.
He is the principal investigator in charge of the GMO cowpea project, and he explains Ghanaian scientists including him have been involved in the development of the GM varieties for more than a decade now.
Dr Abdulai adds there are some challenges with agriculture that conventional breeding alone cannot solve. “He is downplaying the usefulness of the technology because he thinks there are many technologies that can still give us good yield but that is not the case,” he said, citing attacks by Maruca pests which can destroy up to 80% of cowpea yield as an example.
“Pests like Maruca cannot be easily killed with chemicals. So, if you use a lot of it, it is likely you will have residues of the chemicals in the produce. So, the option to go against this pest is to go for GMO technology. That is to go specifically for a gene that works against the pest,” Dr Abdulai observed.
“In conventional breeding, we have more than 10,000 cowpea varieties. But for genes that can naturally control Maruca, we have found none. That’s what led to the introduction of GMO (Bt) variety.”
“Ghana is not an island. Now, Nigeria is commercializing Bt cowpea. Whether we like it or not, if we don’t develop our own Bt varieties, we will be sitting here and we will be eating cowpeas from Nigeria. It could come through our porous borders. So why can’t we have our own and put in the necessary measures to check it,” he quizzed.
Civil society group Alliance for Science Ghana has also in a statement described the Agric minister’s position as unprogressive and unfair.
“If weather patterns are terrible and rain is falling less and pests continue to devastate your farm to the extent that average yield of maize on Ghanaian farms is 1.7 metric tonnes per hectare whilst their colleagues in South Africa are producing averagely at up to 5 tonnes per hectare, it’s unfair to say using advanced science like GMOs on Ghanaian farms is ‘using sledgehammer to crack nuts.’”
“Do we want to increase productivity or we don’t? Do we want to deal with the pest attacks or we don’t?… Do we want to continue polluting the environment with chemicals and poison products with chemicals or we don’t? Those are the critical questions requiring answers,” the statement added.
The agricultural minister’s position on GMOs contradicts that that of Minister for Environment, Science and Technology Prof. Kwabena Frimpong Boateng.
Earlier last year, he submitted a document to parliament seeking an enhanced legal regime for GMO crop production in which he said, “there is a great promise in the use of this technology (GMOs) to benefit not only the farmers but also Ghanaians society.” He said, “genetic modification can create an essential sustainable way to feed Ghana.”