Parliamentary concerns about the apparently illegal importation of genetically modified products into Ghana have prompted the nation’s scientific community to allay fears about GM foods.
The government is also accelerating development of a national biosafety lab that can test imported foods for the presence of GM ingredients, while moving ahead with its own GM crops to replace imports.
A report of parliament’s Environment, Science and Technology Committee requesting approval for the 2019 budget of the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology said members are worried about the introduction of GMO products into the country without the requisite approval from the National Biosafety Authority, which they say is illegal.
The committee has tasked the regulator, the National Biosafety Authority (NBA), to take steps to halt the trend by speeding up processes for the establishment of a biosafety lab. “The illegal importation of genetically modified foods is gradually becoming a source of worry,” Robert Kwasi Amoah, vice chairman of the committee, said on the floor of parliament as the house debated the report, which was eventually approved.
“The biosafety authority is therefore in the process of establishing a lab to test foods that come into the country. This is to ensure that laws on genetically modified foods are not flouted. The committee commends the authority for the initiative and urges it to complete the laboratory within in a year,” Amoah added.
Ghana’s Parliament in 2011 passed the National Biosafety Act to allow for the production and commercialization of GMOs in the country. The law requires that any individual or organization seeking to produce or import GMOs and GMO products first seek approval from the NBA. To date, “officially, the NBA has not received application to introduce GMOs onto the market,” said Eric Okoree, the chief executive officer of the authority.
Reality on ground
But food products labeled as containing GMO ingredients, including cornflakes from South Africa and elsewhere, have been found in major supermarkets in Ghana, prompting red flags from parliamentarians. In 2013, Kwame Dei Asamoah-Otchere, then head of the Biosafety Unit of Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority (FDA), confirmed it is likely that GM products have entered the country without approval.
“Considering the porosity of our borders, coupled with ignorance of business people, it is possible that some GM foods or some GM ingredients contained in the food may have entered Ghana in non-commercial quantities,” Asamoah-Otchere told myjoyonline.com.
Okoree said there is nothing to fear. “I won’t say we are at a risk because the Food and Drugs Authority has been on the ground all the time regulating food. And they have been checking the safety of it. And so without the lab, the FDA has been looking at the safety of GMO foods in the country,” he said.
MP offers safety assurances
Commenting on the concerns from parliamentarians, Yaw Frimpong Addo, an environmental expert and member of the Food, Agriculture and Cocoa Affairs Committee of Parliament, told the Alliance for Science there is nothing for his colleagues to fear about GMO products. “Seriously speaking, there is nothing to fear about the technology. They should not worry at all. To date, if there is any report that indicates that through GMO consumption, some 5,000 people had died in the world, then I will support the opposition. But no,” he said.
“If you say illegal GMO products and you have evidence of it, task the Food and Drugs Authority, go to the shops, pick these things up, run the tests and see if these are dangerous foods that can cause an epidemic in the country,” he added. However, it’s problematic to address it in a budget report.
Addo, who is also chairman of the powerful Government Assurances Committee of Parliament, attributes the fears being raised to a lack of understanding about what exactly GMOs are. “Looks like everyone is afraid of the technology and it’s because we have not done enough education on the technology,” he said. “A lot of them talk from perspectives that you can clearly see that they don’t understand.”
Ghana is on track to get its first locally produced GMO crop onto the market in the course of the year. Field trials to produce local varieties of GMO cowpea with inherent resistant to pests have been completed. Trials are also ongoing on GMO rice that requires less fertilizer, uses water more efficiently and is tolerant of salinity and drought.
Dr. Richard Ameyaw Ampadu, research scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), said Ghana needs to quickly commercialize these crops so people are not tempted to import the improved varieties from other countries, whether legally or not.
“I am happy that these issues are coming up because the more we delay, the more the temptation for people to bring GMOs in because the products are continuously being developed,” he said. “In Nigeria, they have approved GMO cotton. Very soon, they will approve cowpea. And as they release, people can just push it in. We need to get these varieties being done locally as soon as possible so that no one comes to plant weeds among our wheat.”
GMO varieties being developed in the country are going through all necessary risk assessment tests to ensure safety, he said. “We can assure parliament that what we are developing in this country, the monitoring is so strict and so strong, we can be sure it is safe. We can have it with no fear.”
The National Biosafety Authority, meanwhile, said it is working toward establishing the biosafety laboratory to test imported foods. “We are almost there. We have set the lab up. We are looking for one equipment which will be ready soon. So this year, by June, it is going to be commissioned,” Okoree told Alliance for Science.
This, the authority said, will ensure that only those GMO products with the requisite approvals are allowed in as it pertains in other countries. In late 2017, Nigeria ordered the return of about 90 tonnes of GMO maize that were being imported from Argentina, not because they were bad, but because the requisite approval had not been sought in accordance with local biosafety law.
“The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) had to step in to avert the release of the maize consignment into the country due to the failure of the importing company to obtain a GM seed import permit from the NBMA,’’ Rufus Egbegba, the director-general of NBMA, disclosed at a media briefing.
Ameyaw wants authorities in Ghana to be equally vigilant and ensure the country’s laws on GMOs are not flouted. “The people at the border would have to be vigilant, the people building the laboratory would have to fast track the process. And we all have to open our eyes,” he said.