Farmer groups in Ghana are asking the government to speed up the process of commercializing genetically modified (GM) crops as an alternative to pesticide use.
They want Ghana’s Parliament and the Ministry of Food and Agriculture to “heed the cry of farmers concerning difficulties we face with pest and diseases, and push for the availability of GM seeds that will help us fight these pests without spraying a lot of chemicals.”
Six farmer organizations comprising a coalition known as the Concerned Farmers of the Northern Region addressed a media briefing in the savannah city of Tamale to make the demand.
“Government and the MPs who have the small scale farmers at heart should ensure that GM seeds are available alongside the conventional seeds (non-GM seeds) to farmers,” the farmers said.
Conveners of the group, Ibrahim Alhassan of the Juni Farmers Association and Nasiru Adams of the Northern Farmers Association, told the media up to 80 percent of their cowpea production is lost annually to pest attacks — even after they invest heavily in applying pesticides. They are concerned that in addition to the huge financial cost, the high use of chemicals is also harmful and injurious to the health of farmers, their families and consumers, as well as the environment and soils.
Their call comes at a time when GM cowpea, which offers inherent resistance to pest attack, is ready for commercialization. The farmers want the improved variety released soon.
“Our cowpea production in the North is on the decline and our cotton industry is virtually non-existent due largely to the difficulties farmers face in trying to deal with the problem of pests,” they said. “If science has a solution for us in the form of genetically modified seeds, we the farmers of Ghana say and state emphatically we want GM seeds to be developed for us.”
The farmers said they have taken notice that Nigeria is on the verge of releasing GM cowpea and cotton varieties that will boost their agricultural production significantly, and Ghana should do same. “As our colleague farmers in Nigeria, we say we also deserve better,” they told the media briefing.
Despite the passage of the National Biosafety Act in 2011 to allow for the commercialization of GM crops in Ghana, no GM variety is yet on the local market. Efforts by the state Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to introduce GM crops have been hit with a number of challenges, including lawsuits by anti-GM groups and demonstrations on the streets to whip up public sentiment against the technology. The scientists have, however, repeatedly defended the technology in an intensified debate that has engulfed the nation. Now the farmers themselves are speaking out.
They took on the groups campaigning against GMOs by saying: “To the armchair activists against GM, we say farmers know our problems. We want potent solutions and we have the right to choose the best solution.”
The Concerned Farmers of Northern Ghana called on anti-science organizations to halt their anti-GM campaign. “They should allow our own scientists, who have all these years been developing the non-GM improved varieties, to continue their good work and leave the choice of seeds to us the farmers to decide. We will no longer sit aloof while armchair activists against the technology, who know little about the suffering of farmers, suppress our right to choose GM seeds — a viable solution to our pest problem,” the farmers said.
They commended the “gallant” scientists for being allies of the farming profession and helping to develop the agricultural sector, and insisted they trust the scientists. The farmers called on government to help farmers by accepting the research findings from CSIR, its own state research organization, and facilitating the commercialization of the needed GM cowpea, rice and cotton crops.
“Biotechnology as a scientific tool is not a killer nor a monster as some may describe it, but one that is used to modify seeds genetically for our good. It provides efficient solutions to the problems we the farmers of Ghana face in our daily operations,” the farmers said.
“To the government of Ghana, we say act now and facilitate the commercialization of GM seeds, especially cowpea and rice. Let the farmers have the GM variety alongside the conventional seeds. We are simply demanding for our right of choice,” they said.
Science groups welcomed the farmers’ demands and are urging government to listen to them. “Farmers are intelligent people,” Enoch Ilori, project officer at the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) Ghana, told the Alliance for Science. “They understand what will solve their problems. So this call is long overdue. They should have made it long ago.”
Ilori noted: “Usually, when we speak to the farmers about GM seeds, the next thing they ask is, ‘Did you bring the seeds here? Because we needed it like yesterday.’”
According to Ilori, the government now has no choice but to allow for the commercialization of GM crops. “When we meet the policy makers, they would usually ask us, ‘Do the farmers know about it? Do they want it? If the farmers want it, we politicians don’t have a problem.’ And so, to the policy makers, there goes your answer. It is their duty as decision makers to give the farmers what they are demanding. It behooves the government to heed to the farmers’ call.”
Research on GM crops has been underway for more than a decade in Ghana and indications are that scientists will sometime this year apply to regulators for commercialization of the first seeds. But Minister for Food and Agriculture Dr. Akoto Owusu Afriyie stirred controversy recently when he told a meeting with officials of the Food and Agriculture Organization that Ghana does not need GMOs.
It remains to be seen how government will react to the latest demands from the farmers.