Posted by: rumnet | May 13, 2010

Biosafety is Crucial for Ghana

 

Genetically Modified Organisms are threat to biodiversity

Biosafety is Crucial for Ghana 

(Published in the April edition of TheADVOCATE) 

By Margaret Crump 

The year 2010 has been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of Biodiversity. The declaration has resulted in a surge in international efforts to protect our natural resource wealth and to prevent biological loss. In Africa in particular, the focus point of the ‘New Green Revolution’, there has been renewed interest in the Cartegena Protocol. The Protocol was adopted in January of 2000 in an effort to protect biological diversity from the risks posed by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and specifically targets their transnational movement. On May 30th 2003, the Cartegena Protocol was ratified by the government of Ghana. In September 2003, the Protocol entered into force with over 103 signatory countries. Between 2002 and 2004 a National Biosafety Framework was drafted during the United Nations Environment Programme – Global Environmental Facility project ‘National Biosafety Framework for Ghana’. 

The Framework is an attempt to establish guidelines for the development of a government policy and institutional structures that would contain and regulate the national use and transnational movement of GMOs in Ghana. It included a draft Biosafety Bill that made provisions for the regulation of all biotechnology activities in Ghana including the use of GMOs, their release into the environment, their introduction to the national market, their import and export and transit through the country. The Framework did not provide for the use of GMOs in pharmaceuticals for human use because these are regulated by other international agreements. Nor was there a provision for GMO experimentation in Ghana. Since 2004, a second version of the Biosafety Bill has been drafted but it has yet to be put forward in Parliament. 

Although it has received very little public attention, the wording and adoption of a Biosafety Bill is in the immediate interests of Ghanaian consumers and producers. The Cartegena Protocol reflects growing
international concerns about the use and sale of genetically modified (GM) crops. A Biosafety Law would regulate the way GMOs are handled and check reckless dissemination. With no legal framework in place in Ghana, there is nothing either limiting the use of GMOs or protecting local seed use. In fact, the Council on Industrial and Scientific Research has already begun limited experimentation specifically on
industrial crops. The distinction between industrial and food crops is blurry however, as experimentation has begun on cowpea, soya and maize crops, all of which are Ghanaian food staples. 

Proponents of GMO argue that the purpose of genetic modification is to enhance the organism’s productivity. Thus, GM crops would be designed to be resistant to external stresses, to provide healthier food staple options and to increase agricultural production and help countries to achieve a national food surplus across the board. In terms of livestock, GM cattle might be designed to produce more milk. These touted benefits seem highly rewarding particularly in terms of improving national food security. 

However, leaping blindly into the production and use of GMOs is not necessarily the answer to agricultural development in Ghana as the long term viability and environmental and health implications of GMOs have not yet been determined. In terms of GMO use in Ghana, it is important for policy and decision-makers to look into the following question: what do GMOs mean both for Ghanaian consumers and farmers? GM crops are most effective in a large-scale monoculture agricultural setting as in addition to the cost of the GM seed, they require heavy inputs of chemical fertilizers which can be incorporated into the budget of plantation farmers. However, more than 70 per cent of agriculture in Ghana is done at the small-holder level. For such farmers the costs of the necessary inputs are suicidal. In addition, over 90 per cent of Ghanaian farmers rely on farmer-saved seeds and seed exchanges for their annual sewing of crops, rather than on the purchase of seeds. 

Mr Bakari Nyari, vice chairman of the Regional Advisory and Information Network Systems (RAINS) and African Biodiversity Network Steering Committee member, believes that the introduction of GM crops
in Ghana will result in three likely scenarios. Firstly, with the risks of cross contamination high when GM crops are grown alongside non-GM crops, the country’s indigenous seed system will likely be destroyed, thus compromising the staples of Ghanaian diet. The destruction of the indigenous seed system could easily lead to the enslavement of rural farmers in a system of seed purchase especially if the United Nation’s five year moratorium on GM terminator seeds (seeds which are genetically altered to prevent future germination) is lifted. 

Currently, most farmers rely on a cash-free barter system to acquire new seeds. A farmer might for example exchange yams for maize seed. Because subsistence farmers do not have the financial capital to purchase seeds every year, Ghanaian farmers will suffer if legislation is passed that commercialized seed use and exchange. Lastly, it seems unlikely to Mr Nyari that small-holder farmers will be able to meet the input requirements necessary for GM crops. While the Alliance for a New Green Revolution has indicated that they intend to make the inputs physically available to Ghanaian farmers, whether or not farmers will be able to afford them is another question entirely. According to Mr Nyari, GMOs jeopardize Ghanaian interests. “The monocultural economy that most benefits from GM crops will systematically kill small-holder farming without replacing it with systems that are viable and in tune with their cultural setting” he says. 

Mr Nyari personally opposes a New Green Revolution, citing the example of failure of the first Green Revolution in the Indian Subcontinent as evidence that GM crops have never been proved to benefit the
producers. “Chemical fertilizers change the texture of the soil and create a generation of people who suffer” he says. More recently, the GM-corn harvest failure in South Africa last year highlights just how vulnerable farmers to external factors when it comes to GM crops. According to reports, three types of Monsanto GM-corn were reported by farmers in three different provinces of the country to have extensive problems with seedless cobs. Monsanto blamed the crop failures on “underfertilization in the laboratory”. 

Meanwhile, South African farmers suffered the loss of millions of dollars in potential income. Mr Nyari suggests organic agriculture as a viable alternative to GM crops. Most small-scale farmers already breed animals and the droppings of goats, sheep and fowls can be used to produce compost. While this would require a change from the slash and burn style agriculture that is currently practiced in most of Northern Ghana, there are already success stories to speak of. 

In the area of Upper Eastern Region around Bolgatanga, farmers consistently use animal droppings as fertilizers. “The soil is rich and the crops are big” says Mr Nyari. “Yet you go to my community which is much wetter and look at the same crops. They are so lean.” The Ghanaian government wants more food to be produced locally. It would be easy to buy into the perceived immediate short-term benefits of GMOs in the hopes of seeing an increase in food production to point to as an administrative success. Particularly because the Ghanaian government has yet to take an official stance in regards to GMOs which makes them vulnerable to pressure large profit-seeking multinational corporations that advocate their use.

Currently, the Seed Bill, which addresses seed use, exchange and distribution, is up for consideration before parliament and the Biosafety Bill, although it has yet to be introduced, is scheduled in the Business of the House for this session. For now we will have to follow the debates and amendments made to the bills, to discern the direction in which the government is moving in regards to seed distribution and the use of GMOs in Ghana.

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