Ghana’s GMO conversation turns to biodiversity

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

July 18, 2018

“The genetic modification, if you modify the organisms, won’t it cause a destruction to our biodiversity?” That was the question from a local farmer at Nyankpala, a village in northern Ghana, that crowned an hour-long panel discussion on GMOs after a recent screening of the film “Food Evolution.”

“I can assure you that if there is any single crop or product that will help with the biodiversity of our environment, it is GMO products like Bt,” replied Dr. Emmanuel Chamba, a plant breeder with the Savannah Agric Research Institute (SARI) of the government research institute, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, is a soil microbe that provides natural pest resistance.

“I worked on Bt cotton,” he told the gathering of about 200 students, farmers and other members of the public who turned up for the screening. “You are spraying [pesticides] at least six times every season with conventional cotton. But with the Bt, you only spray two times. So when you compare the Bt fields to the conventional fields, we have a lot of beneficial insects on the Bt fields — more than the conventional. So I will say that Bt helps protect biodiversity.”

This was a new dimension to the conversation around GMOs in Ghana. For a very long time, the discussion on GMOs has mainly been about whether they’re safe for human consumption, or if farmers will lose their traditional seeds when GMOs are eventually commercialized.

But now the subject of biodiversity has moved front and center as Ghana continues field trials on GM rice and cowpea in hopes of soon commercializing them under the enabling  National Biosafety Act 2011.

In simple terms, biodiversity refers to the extent of diversity within various species of living organisms. The world’s biodiversity is currently being diminished through agricultural activities, urbanization, deforestation and other human activities. Ghana is rich in biodiversity and the country is estimated to have at least 3000 indigenous plant species.

“Since the GMO debate started here in 2011, despite Ghana being particular about preserving our biodiversity, we have not had that conversation about GMOs and biodiversity,” Reuben Quainoo of the Ghana Agric and Rural Development Journalists Association (GARDJA) observed in an interview. “I am happy it is emerging now. We can carry it on from here to various media houses and see how far the conversation goes.”

Quainoo added: “I am tempted to agree with Dr. Chamba that if Ghana wants to conserve our biodiversity, GMO crops can help reduce application of pesticides and ensure we conserve biodiversity. But we need to hear more expert views on this subject so we can all decide on GMOs.”

GM crops can also help protect biodiversity by improving yields, which reduces the need to turn forests and wetlands, which are typically species-rich, into agricultural fields.

Members on the panel that discussed the topic “GM foods: Human Killer or Hunger Killer?” also dismissed concerns that GMOs are unhealthy. “I just want to appeal to all and sundry — let your parents know that GMOs are not dangerous,” said Adams Nasiru, chairman of the Northern Region Farmers Association. “If you don’t know the science, you don’t know anything. We want good yields.”

Panelist Abdul Rahman Dobea, who works with the Tamale Metro Agric office, backed the claim that GMOs are not harmful. “There is no evidence that if you eat GM foods, it causes any abnormality in your system. The purpose of GM is to increase productivity and ensure quality nutrition. These are the main reasons why I think we should embrace the technology,” he said.

His comment got the backing of panelist Obed Amissah of Alliance for Science Ghana. “The scientists who brought the technology saw a problem. When you look at food security, a time is coming when we will not be able to feed the population because of climate change. That is the challenge that is being fixed with GMOs,” he noted.

“It is not about scientists being greedy for money. It is about scientists trying to find a way to support livelihood by producing foods that will last. Foods with long shelf lives. So these are what the GM technology is about. It is about bringing technology to solve problems,” Amissah added.

Chamba, who leads work on GMO cotton trials in the country, assured the audience that GMO products are produced with the intention of enhancing agricultural production and there is no need for the public to fear them. “We are doing the changes because we want desired, beneficial products,” he said.

The screening and panel discussion was organized by Alliance for Science Ghana in collaboration with the Biotechnology Students Association of Ghana. Association President Samuel Oppong described “Food Evolution” as a good and educational piece. He also described GMOs as “a savior” that will revolutionize agricultural production in the country when they are commercialized.