Ghana’s scientists, farmers reject claim that GMO crops aren’t needed

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

March 20, 2019

Ghana’s science community and farmers have soundly rejected a recent claim by the Minister for Food and Agriculture that the country does not need genetically modified foods to ensure food security.

With climate change, pests and diseases already negatively impacting agriculture in Ghana, they say that farmers deserve to choose what kind of technology they will apply to future food production.

The Daily Graphic, a state-owned newspaper, last week reported that the minister, Dr. Akoto Owusu Afriyie, had described GMOs as a controversial subject staunchly opposed by some Ghanaians. He reportedly told a meeting of 19 African country directors of the World Food Program (WFP) in Accra that “indeed, we don’t need it,” because the country had already developed improved seeds that would be sufficient to boost food production.

But Dr. Richard Ampadu-Ameyaw, Ghana coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), sharply disagreed with the minister’s assessment.

“It is an unfortunate statement,” Ampadu told the Alliance for Science. “Especially in an era when everybody is moving in terms of technology. But I won’t fault him so much in the sense that perhaps he doesn’t understand the issues very well. Particularly, the science behind the technology. Because if you understand the technology, you will not talk like that.”

Ghanaian scientists have completed trials on the country’s first GMO crop (Bt cowpea), which offers inherent resistance to attacks by the destructive bollworm pest. They are expected to apply for environmental and commercial release soon.

Davies Korboe, who chairs the National Farmers and Fishermen Association and was named 2009 National Best Farmer in Ghana, also took exception to the minister’s comments.

“Looking at global warming and pests and diseases affecting our farms, the best way to go for me is GMOs,” he said. “Because then we could have drought-tolerant seeds and also pest- and disease-resistant varieties with high yield. With GMOs, we save the environment. Application of chemicals will be reduced. Currently, what we are doing is over polluting the environment from weedicide and insecticides and other things. For GMO, we need it.”

Korboe said there is no way Ghana can compete with other players in the international community unless a conscious effort is made to promote advanced technology.

“Every maturing economy should be time bound,” he explained. “We should be able to see the future. We should be able to match up with technologies emerging all over the world. That is why GMOs are important because that is where the world is headed to now.”

He is calling for a national dialogue where various stakeholders in the agricultural space can take a firm stand on GMOs. “We should have a national dialogue to see whether we really need it or not and to put the matter to rest. We should have a proper national dialogue [rather] than allowing a few people to say no.”

Ghana already open to GMOs

Ghana already signaled its receptivity to the technology in 2011, when it passed the National Biosafety Act to allow for the production and commercialization of GMO crops. “If you look at the agric policies that we have in the country, it says clearly that we need advanced technologies,” Ampadu said. “And one of those technologies is GM. Because there are farm diseases and there are going to be more diseases on food crops which current technologies will not be able to help us solve.”

Ampadu is convinced the application of GMO technology to food production fits directly into the country’s development plans. “We have a biosafety law which talks about biosafety and biotechnology, and the minister says we don’t need it? Then why did we pass that law? We have the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agric Research Institute (BNARI); it means the vision was there. So why did we develop it? We have people who are in school, in universities, studying biotechnology, what are we going to do with them? Should government spend money on them and then we throw them away? So there are a lot of things around us which suggests that we need this technology,” he told the Alliance.

Ampadu said the application of improved technology to food production is nothing new, so he does not understand why the minister is apprehensive about it.

“Climate change is taking away a lot of the food crops that we have,” he said. “Therefore, there is the need to bring in a technology that will engineer food crops that will be suitable for our present age. Most of the things we are eating today used not to be like this. How did we get the foods we are eating now? It is all through some of these changes and new technologies. And if the minister says we don’t need it, then there is a problem.”

Conflicting positions

In his remarks to the WFP, the minister for agriculture said Ghana’s scientific community has already researched and registered over 58 different varieties of grains that could produce 10 times the yield of ordinary grains. Ampadu fears the comment could hinder Ghana’s plans to commercialize GMOs.

“It is possible this statement can influence the direction of commercialization,” Ampadu said. “If he [the minister] sits in a cabinet where I don’t sit and no scientist sits and he tables it, saying that we don’t need it, it could affect policy. But they won’t know what others, like the farmers, are saying.”

The New Patriotic Party government, which took power in 2017, has been aggressively promoting agriculture with the implementation of its flagship Planting for Food and Jobs program to revolutionize the sector. The initiative is based on four main pillars: making improved seeds available to farmers, supporting them with extension services and subsidized fertilizers, and improving the application of technology to production.

Last year, Dr. Solomon Gyan-Ansah, deputy director for crop services at the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, hinted in an interview with another state-owned newspaper, the Ghanaian Times, that the government was open to including GMO seeds in the flagship program. He explained that reliance on “conventional seeds” alone may not be sufficient to achieve the long-term goals of the Planting for Food and Jobs program going into the future.

“Since we introduced the program, beneficiaries have increased from 200,000 to 500,000 and now we are targeting about 700,000,” he said in the interview. “And looking at our plans to make Ghana self-sufficient in food supply, it will be unrealistic to do without GMOs.”

But now, the minister himself has sent the clearest possible signal that he disagrees with Gyan-Ansah.

During his days as a member of parliament, Akoto was zeen as pro-science. When the president announced his nomination as minister in January 2017, the anti-GMO group Food Sovereignty Ghana petitioned parliament demanding that legislators block his approval because of his pro-GMO stance. The petition alleged “Dr. Afriyie Akoto seems to have fallen hard for the corporate lobby representing GMOs.”

The petitioners took issue with the Cambridge University-trained agricultural economist for vouching for the safety of GMO foods in a 2014 interview in which he said, “Ghana imports 150,000 metric tons of poultry products every year and most of that are coming from America, Brazil and Europe. Where do you think those chickens are fed from? They are fed from genetically modified grains. So, we are eating genetically modified food. Has anybody died?”

Akoto also previously told local broadcast station TV3: “Genetically modified food is eaten in America and Ghana and everywhere through feeding grains to chickens and we are eating it [as well]. Are we all dead? All the Americans would be dead by now” if it was harmful.

Similarly, Prof. Kwabena Frimpong Boateng, minister for Environment, Science and Technology, previously praised GMOs as a technology Ghana needs to develop when he inaugurated the board of the National Biosafety Authority in 2017. He told the meeting “biotechnology is so important, and we can’t develop without it” as he called for more efforts to educate Ghanaians on the technology.

It remains to be seen whether the storm that has been brewing since the biosafety act was passed in 2011 will calm before the end of year, when scientists are likely to submit an application to regulators seeking the environmental release and commercialization of Ghana’s first GMO crop, Bt cowpea. Meanwhile, Nigeria is already moving to commercialize both Bt cotton and Bt cowpea.