GMO debate driving wedge between Ghana’s farmer groups

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

March 22, 2018

In the words of renowned science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, “Science is true whether you believe it or not.” And one scientific fact proven to be true is that foods produced using biotechnology (GMOs) are safe, holding great potential to transform agricultural production in Africa and all over the world.

But not everyone believes this scientific fact, most notably the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana (PFAG), which has a network of 1,500 registered farmer-based organizations and 39,750 members. Its anti-GMO activities have included issuing a statement cautioning Ghanaians against the consumption of GMO foods, claiming they are dangerous.

The group’s statement runs counter to the stance taken by various respected institutions in Ghana, including the Food and Drugs Authority and Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, both of which have declared GMO technology safe. Renowned scientists in the country, including Kwabena Boating, a heart surgeon and now Minister for Environment, Science and Technology, also have repeatedly backed that position and insisted the technology is key to Ghana’s economic growth. Dr. Boateng recently told a meeting of the board of the National Biosafety Authority “biotechnology is so important and we cannot develop without it.”

But the Peasant Farmers remain unconvinced, issuing a statement that read, in part: “The PFAG has observed with dismay the recent dumping of GM products in Ghana which has been rejected by consumers in USA, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and South Africa where they originate… These GMOs are dangerous to health… threat to environment sustainability and threat to ownership of seeds by local farmers.”

The caution drew a sharp rebuttal from the Ghana National Farmers and Fishermen Association (GNAFF), which represents 2.5 million farmers. In a counter statement, GNAFF Vice President John Awuku Dziwornu shred the Peasant Farmers’ statement: “Claims by the association that GMOs should be resisted at all cost because of its claimed negative health and economic implications are untrue. What is even more laughable is the claim in the statement that GMOs are dangerous to health, and are a leading cause of carcinogenic diseases.’ That is a palpable falsehood.”

Dziwornu continued: “In the United States of America, Brazil and other American countries where GM foods have been consumed for more than 20 years, there is no evidence linking the consumption of GMOs to cancer and other health hazards.

“Look at the following statistics: In America where more than 80 percent of all corn, soya bean and cowpea consumed are GMOs, the rate of cancer per every 10,000 people is 318.0. But in Denmark, the rate is 338.1. In France, it is 324. In Belgium it is 321. In Norway, it is 318.3, according to data from the World Cancer Research Fund International. The point is; all these European countries where GMOs are not grown have far higher cancer rates than the US, where it is consumed widely. So let no one deceive the Ghanaian populace that GMOs cause cancer. There is no scientific evidence to back the claim that GMOs cause any health diseases,” he noted.

“In fact, the World Health Organization is emphatic in a note on its website that: ‘No allergic effects have been found relative to GM foods currently on the market… GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved.’ So where is the PFAG getting their facts from?” he questioned.

Dziwornu also refuted the PFAG assertion that GMOs will harm Ghanaian farmers economically and make them lose ownership of their seeds. “This claim is also inaccurate. In Ghana, no industrial firm is involved in any of the current ongoing GM food trials that are being done. They are being done by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and sister international research agencies. Farmers will have the opportunity to use their GM seeds without any risk of legal action when they are out on the market if they so wish,” he noted.

Dziwornu believes that GMO technology already has won the debate in Ghana. He compares the number of farmers — 2.5 million — in his group to the almost 40,000 members of the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana, and insists pro-technology farmers have dwarfed the anti-technology farmers. “The unscientifically inspired fear-mongering activities over GMOs must stop,” he said. “GM foods have repeatedly been proven to be safe and let no one demonize the technology for their own parochial interests.”

He called on farmers from all corners of the country, particularly those in the PFAG, to choose facts over fear and embrace the technology that Ghana is developing, saying it can reduce pest infestation in cowpea fields and help rice farmers deal with the impact of climate change on their crops.

Ghana’s parliament in 2011 passed the Biosafety Act to allow for the production and commercialization of GMOs in the country. Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is currently undertaking field trials of GMO cowpea, which has inherent resistance to insect attacks, as well as NEWEST rice, which is nitrogen efficient, water efficient and salt tolerant. The varieties are expected on the market soon, once various regulatory requirements are met.