GM crop debate rages - who wins?

BY: Charles Benoni Okine
Maize cultivated in many parts of the world is genetically modified
Maize cultivated in many parts of the world is genetically modified

In many parts of the world, the mention of Genetically Modified (GM) Foods has become a ‘taboo’. The reasons for that are varied but chief among them is the fact that GM foods are not natural and have serious future consequences on those who consume them.

There is also the perception that GM foods have no taste as it is with the natural ones or what is called the organic foods. There are those who have also stated that the cultivation of GM crops will have a negative impact on the quality of the soils, thereby making it impossible for future cultivation of crops on the same land. In Ghana for instance, many activists against GM foods have stood in the way of the government and are preventing the passage of laws that open up the space for the country to start commercial production of GM crops.

Suffice to say that there is presently a number of confined trials of particularly GM rice in the Ashanti Region under the supervision of the Crop Research Institute. Experts have explained that the process is under strict supervision to prevent any interruptions.

In South Africa, the government, according to a post by Biosciences for Farming in Africa (B4FA), has indicated its intention to take drastic action against all supermarkets that stock their shelves with imported products from GM crops. The concern is that those products have flooded the markets without permit. This is also an indication that the consumption of GM foods has not well been accepted by the people.

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Globally, there are countries that intend to ban GM foods and the cultivation of GM crops because of the varied reasons adduced for its negative impact on global food security.

Study proves otherwise

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Meanwhile a study conducted by researchers from Purdue University reveals that a global ban on genetically modified (GM) crops would raise food prices and add the equivalent of nearly a billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The researchers used a model to assess the economic and environmental value of GM crops, and found that replacing GM corn, soybeans and cotton with conventionally bred varieties worldwide would cause a 0.27 to 2.2 per cent increase in food costs, depending on the region, with poorer countries hit hardest. The study also reports that a ban on GM crops would also trigger the conversion of pastures and forests to cropland to compensate for lower productivity of conventional crops, which would release substantial amounts of stored carbon to the atmosphere.

If countries planting GM crops matched the rate of GM crop plantings in the United States, global greenhouse gas emissions would fall by an equivalent 0.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, and would allow 0.8 million hectares of cropland (about two million acres) to return to forests and pastures.

Purdue University professor of Agricultural Economics, Dr Wallace E. Tyner, said: "Some of the same groups that want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions also want to ban GMOs. But you can't have it both ways. Planting GMO crops is an effective way for agriculture to lower its carbon footprint."

The way forward

Many countries are eating GM foods and growing GM crops but are not aware of what they are consuming or planting. This is because the foods and crops have found their way into the system. Interestingly, those against GM foods in Ghana are also not aware that there are many different packed and canned foods that are GM foods but have no inscriptions on the labels to that effect.

Generally, knowing the intention of introduction of genetic modification which includes increasing farmer yields, reducing chemical spraying on crops among many other things, it is imperative for countries such as Ghana to critically consider a few things before taking GM crops more seriously. These include our readiness to improve the road networks to the food-growing areas to avoid gluts in case of bumper harvests. It is also necessary to be sure of our readiness to export excess foods to rake in more money.

The GM debate will not end today and the proponents and those against will continue to be at each other’s throat for many more decades to come. However, the onus lies on governments to consider what is right for its people particularly as far as food security is concerned and ensure that decisions for or against are in the best interest of the generality of the people today and the future.