Can Ghana increase food yield through GMO techniques?

BY: Arku Jasmine

In many developing countries across the world, food shortage is a major issue.

Apart from the lack of rain and poor irrigation, there is also the serious issue about the invasion of millions of acres of farmlands by pests.  

As a result, millions of people have died as a result of famine. Some governments, in their quest to improve the level of agricultural production have adopted various methods.  

One of these methods is the scientific techniques in food production known commonly as the genetically modified organism foods (GMO foods).

Other developing countries are however very skeptical because of the misconceptions created about this techniques.

It is on record that, plans are underway to use GMO techniques to boost cotton production in the northern part of Ghana, using the success story of Burkina Faso’s BT Cotton as a test case.

BT cotton is said to generate more foreign exchange as yields have increased from as little as 40,000 tonnes to about 600,000 tonnes per annum.

What is a GMO

A GMO (genetically modified organism) is the result of a laboratory process which involves taking genes from one species and inserting them into another in an attempt to obtain a desired trait or characteristic, hence, they are also known as transgenic organisms.

According to the American Academy of Environmental Medicine, this process may be called either Genetic Engineering (GE) or Genetic Modification (GM).

In order to breach these natural barriers and make possible the introduction of DNA from a different species, genetic engineers have to find ways to force the DNA from one organism into another. These methods include:

• Using viruses or bacteria to "infect" animal or plant cells with the new DNA.
• Coating DNA onto tiny metal pellets, and firing it with a special gun into the cells.
• Injecting the new DNA into fertilised eggs with a very fine needle.
• Using electric shocks to create holes in the membrane covering sperm, and then forcing the new DNA into the sperm through these holes.

What combinations have been tried?

It is now possible for plants to be engineered with genes taken from bacteria, viruses, insects, animals or even humans. Scientists have worked on some interesting combinations:
• Spider genes were inserted into goat DNA, in hopes that the goat milk would contain spider web protein for use in bulletproof vests.
• Cow genes turned pigskins into cowhides.
• Jellyfish genes lit up pigs' noses in the dark.
• Artic fish genes gave tomatoes and strawberries tolerance to frost.
• Potatoes that glowed in the dark when they needed watering.
• Human genes were inserted into corn to produce spermicide.

Caution

The Executive Secretary of the African Capacity Building Foundation (ACBF), Dr Frannie Léautier, has said the adoption GMOs is not in itself a bad practice because of the positivity on crop and animal yields.

However, she cautioned that Ghana and other countries in the developed world that intends to adopt that technique must be able to exercise the greatest caution before adopting any new ways of increasing agricultural yields using GMO techniques.

For instance, she noted that the adoption of techniques for genetically modified foods in particular required the right capacities to be able to realise its fullest impact of improved yield.

She told a cross section of the media in Accra that to be able to properly adopt that GM technique, the analysis must be right.

There is the need for any country that want to adopt this method to “have the capacity for biosafety, have capacity to run experiments to test them and capacity to pilot to scale and those that have these and more can be considered ready for GMOs”.

“So if you do not have that then there is a serious issue at stake and because once started it could be a difficult thing to unwind”, she said.

Ms Léautier said “look at cotton in Burkina Faso, banana in Uganda and cassava in Nigeria. These may be successful but those countries that have not had the real capacities to experiment before adopting cannot properly manage the situation and there can be challenges that will affect food yields, something which is not the intention.”

“Key issue is to build the capacity for running these experiments and tests focusing on species that are naturally around so they do not have negative effect on the ecosystem and particularly the transmission of diseases”, she warned.

Ms Léautier said it could be considered in the Sahel regions and where drought resistant varieties could be very popular in an attempt to see the nutrition fortified for the people.

Way Forward

It is obvious that there are good sides of the GMO foods. But at the same time it can be damaging to a country’s economy because the needed yields may not be achieved to solve the shortages.

It is therefore obvious that the right capacities need to be adopted to ensure that the right things are done to avert a calamity and to win the confidence of the people (both farmers and the masses) to use it.

Ghana can adopt GMO techniques but there is no need for a rush because any mistake can cause the nation dearly.

By Charles Benoni Okine/Graphic Business/Ghana