Ghana has rolled out a new initiative focusing on the role biotechnology and biosafety can play in conserving biodiversity and protecting the environment.
“Biotech is key to conserving biodiversity,” said Dr. Margaret Karembu, director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter.
Biodiversity essentially refers to the planet’s vast collection of plants, animals and micro-organisms. Anytime this diversity is lost to deforestation, agricultural activities, exploitation of the ocean, pollution, etc., it reduces nature’s capacity to ensure the wellbeing of other species, particularly humans. In Africa, for example, a 2018 report approved by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services warned that by 2100, climate change could cause the loss of more than half of African bird and mammal species, a 20 to 30 percent decline in the productivity of Africa’s lakes and significant loss of African plant species.
Though the biotech-biosafety mainstreaming process will take years to complete, players in the sector are confident Ghana will be the ultimate beneficiary. “Our commitment to this is high and we look forward to a successful integration of biosafety in different sectors,” said Eric Okoree, chief executive officer of the country’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA).
The implementation strategy, outlined in a document from the NBA, will specifically aim “to present Ghana as a case where the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, the Supplementary Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and Benefit Sharing, and the Convention on Biological Diversity have been integrated in national discourse to facilitate implementation,” according to the report.
The convention and associated protocols encourage nations to preserve biodiversity, ensure its sustainable use and guarantee fair distribution of the benefits from its use. More than 170 countries have adopted the convention. The Cartagena protocol requires nations to ensure the application of biotechnology does not negatively impact the environment.
Biotechnology, biosafety and biodiversity
Prof. Alfred Oteng, former chairman of the National Biodiversity Committee, said that biosafety is an important tool for conserving genetic resources in any country where biotechnology has been adopted. “Biosafety is relevant. How do we make sure that the new genetic materials we are bringing in are not mixed with what is already there? In all agric improvements, we always go back to traditional/landrace materials. So measures such as those contained in the protocols are meant to make sure genetic heritage are intact,” he told the Alliance for Science in an interview.
Citing insect-resistant biotech crops like Bt maize and Bt cotton, Karembu noted that biotechnology can help conserve the environment through the reduction of pesticide use on farms. “By reducing the amount of chemicals pumped into the environment, you reduce the number of species killed by non-specific chemicals. These biotech crops target only pests of interest. Bt technology targets only bollworm in cotton and Bt maize targets only stem borer and fall armyworm, leaving other beneficial organisms in the environment.”
The adoption of biotech crops between 1996 and 2016 reduced pesticide spraying by 671.2 million kg and reduced environmental footprint associated with pesticide use by 18.4 percent, according to ISAAA.
Increased productivity resulting from the use of biotech crops has also prevented the further destruction of forests to make way for farms, Karembu said. “When you have drought- tolerant biotech maize, for example, farmers will be able to get more from their crops. When you increase productivity per unit land for farmers, a farming family producing more from a small piece of land would not have the need to go farm on new land where we have very specific biodiversity conserved,” she explained.
“When you use inefficient means of farming, it means you continue to destroy plants and animals in the soil that could be useful. Technology makes farming more efficient thereby reducing environmental destruction.”
Biotechnology has also been an important tool for conserving plant and other species in the form of tissue culture and in gene banks, Karembu said “So that 100 years from now, you can always go back to the in situ conservation places and get your plants of interest.”
Strategy for mainstreaming biotech and biodiversity
Though Ghana’s 2011 National Biosafety law authorized the application of biotechnology to food production, concerns have been raised that not enough has been done to integrate the technology into other aspects of national development.
“The safety of modern biotechnology in providing food security, improving human health and ensuring a sound environment has been an issue of debate… However, policies, and national development strategies and plans are rarely well aligned,” noted the NBA strategy document.
The authority initiated a study that recommended reviews of the country’s policies, legislation and protocols to ensure proper alignment of biotechnology and biosafety with food security, health and the environment, among other sectors of national development.
“When implemented, this will ensure that the policies we have which are not necessarily focused on biotechnology recognize biosafety measures and make provision for its implementation within the mandates they cover so that there can be a broad implementation of biosafety in the country,” Okoree said at a media briefing.
The move will align the work of some seven government agencies that operate in the biotechnology space, including the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drugs Authority, Customs, Ghana Standards Authority, Plant Protection and Regulatory Services Division, Local Government and Veterinary Services.
The strategy is intended to facilitate the proper implementation of instruments and protocols relating to GMOs and thus result in efficiency, savings and ease of financing in the biosafety space.
The mainstreaming will also lay out broad institutional frameworks to help involve members of the public in the work of institutions working on biosafety so as to make the review of current policies easier. “Steps are being taken to obtain public support for protocols on modern biotechnology so as to incur legal obligations to incorporate its provisions into national policies, administrative measures and laws,” the document noted.
In addition to harmonizing the operations of agencies working on GMO, the strategy calls for building capacity of the appropriate agencies and including the safety concerns of stakeholders in other sectors of the economy. Research and development institutions will be strengthened, more investment will be made in safety measures for monitoring research, and initiatives to promote global competitiveness in risk management will be adopted.