Ghana eyes Bt cotton following its approval in nearby Nigeria

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

August 8, 2018

Photo courtesy of SARI

Nigeria’s decision to commercialize Bt cotton has revived hopes for the novel variety in Ghana, its West African neighbor. Science-focused civil society groups are confident Nigeria’s move will serve as a good role model and push players in the agricultural space to resume work on processes to make Bt cotton available to farmers in Ghana.

“Nigeria came on board later thinking of commercialization of GM cotton and already it is out,” Dr. Richard Ampadu Ameyaw, Ghana coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), told Alliance for Science. “Ghana would have to take a cue from Nigeria, especially if we want to create more jobs in Africa and develop our textiles industry. So that we can create jobs for our farmers and teeming youth who walk about with no jobs. We need to be fast with coming out with our varieties to commercialize it.”

Ghana needs to catch up with Nigeria in applying technology to farming so that it is not left behind in the ongoing efforts to revive the cotton industry, Ampadu said. It is anticipated that Bt cotton will allow Nigeria to produce a high quantity of quality cotton, propelling it to a place of leadership in the continent’s textiles industry. Ampadu wants Ghana to benefit, too. “Nigeria is going to open up the cotton industry,” he predicted. “And that will have an impact on our textiles industry. In terms of pricing and other things, it’s going to affect what we produce in this country.”

Nigeria last month approved the commercialization of its first genetically modified crop — the pest-resistant Bt cotton, which has a higher yield. Bt cotton can resist the devastating bollworm pests, reduce use of pesticides on farms and minimize the crop’s environmental impacts. With a population of over 190 million people, Nigeria is known as the giant of Africa and many countries on the continent look up to it.

Daniel Osei Ofosu, Ghana country coordinator of the Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS) of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), said Nigeria has done something exciting that is worth emulating. “Nigeria had a cotton industry that collapsed, just as our industry has collapsed. And they have been looking for a solution. And they found that Bt is the best solution. And within a period of two years, they have moved from field trials to commercialization,” he said.

“The cotton development authority, National Biosafety Authority (NBA), and government itself must work together,” Ofosu said. “The NBA has virtually all the regulations. It’s one of the best resourced authorities in Africa. It is ready. If you look at the Indian cotton industry, it is Bt cotton that has revived that industry… Why do we keep dwelling on our fears and not do same?”

Cotton production has many challenges, making interventions with brand new technology a necessity, he said. “We have all kinds of problems, from bollworm to weeds to very little marketing. We need a bold move by government and the regulators and farmers to allow for improved technology to help farmers just as Nigeria has done,” Ofosu said.

Cotton is grown in the northern part of Ghana but the sector has struggled for many years. One of the major causes of this has been the use of poor seeds. The trend of cotton production has been erratic in Ghana, and the country contributes less than 1 percent to the continent’s production, although it has excellent conditions for cultivation. A lot of the nation’s cotton processing factories have collapsed because the sector is inactive.

Mohammed Adams Nasiru, chairman of the National Union of Small Holder Farmers, wants Ghana to learn from Nigeria when it comes to the commercialization of Bt crops. “Nigeria is ahead of us in terms of agriculture,” he noted. “Nigeria has taken a good lead. The adoption of Bt cotton in that country is a step in the right direction, If Nigeria is going Bt in terms of cotton, I think we also have to follow up on that,” he added.

“As we speak today, cotton production in the three northern regions is nothing to write home about,” Nasiru said. “The industry is almost dead. It’s no more functioning. If new innovations can revamp the sector, why don’t we embrace it? So the northern region becomes not only the bread basket but also a foreign exchange earner in terms of cotton production. It will be good to embrace innovations like Bt in Ghana.”

Ghana suspended trials of GMO cotton in 2016 after funding ran out. The trials had proved promising as less pesticides were used on GMO cotton fields in the Northern Region than on conventional varieties. While conventional cotton farmers typically have to spray  their fields up to eight times within the plant’s life cycle, only two cycles of spray were needed on the GMO fields as the seeds had inbuilt resistance to the pests.

Dr. Emmanuel Chambas, lead plant breeder on the Bt cotton project of the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute (SARI), said they are working on raising funds to resume the research. “We are looking at government and other private sources,” he explained in an interview. “Hopefully, it will work soon for the trials to start.”

Ghana currently has no locally produced GMO crops on the market, though the country’s Parliament passed the Biosafety Act 2011 to allow for such production. GMO cowpea and rice are currently undergoing field trials, which are required before the crops can be approved for commercial production and seeds distributed to farmers.