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Beyond the present GMO debates

BY: Richard Ampadu-Ameyaw (PhD)

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms or products that have genetically being engineered or had a gene or genes (the hereditary materials of living things) added or removed by scientists, through a carefully designed technique. 

Unfortunately, while the technology is being used in several sectors such as the health sector to develop medicines such as insulin, in some countries, including Ghana, arguments about the technology, particularly in the agriculture and food sectors, demonise the technology and make it look like that which destroys and kills.

Status of GM tech in Ghana

In Ghana, scientists are developing two GM crops, the Bt cowpea, to fight the pod borer pest- Maruca (which has over the years robbed farmers of their incomes by feeding and destroying cowpea pod) and the NUE rice which allows rice to thrive in nitrogen-deficient soils by making do with the little nitrogen in the soils, without the application of fertiliser or any soil booster.

The fear mongering, and distrust that surrounds GMOs and the GM technology distract people from good things that can bring relieves to the poor we all seek to protect.

For fear of the unknown, we shy away from asking the deeper questions.

When GM technology and products are stigmatised, potential beneficiaries (farmers and consumers) will lose that opportunity to benefit from such productivity-enhancing advanced technologies, that promise crops with increased nutrients, and adaptability to changing environmental stresses (which can wipe away entire biodiversity).

Media and public education

The debate about GMOs goes beyond the usual benefits and risks discussion of the technology. Unfortunately, the media and debaters of the technology have deceived us to rather focus on that and we have failed to have an open mind to the scientific facts of the technology.

The global system for mobile communications suffered the same fate but today we have gracefully accepted and embraced even higher forms wholeheartedly.

While our agriculture and food systems may not be perfect and free from other challenges, such that chemicals such as fertiliser, pesticides and herbicide will for now remain real issues for farmers and consumers, the science of accepting to eat or not to eat any food must be understood.

The technology should be understood from its basis and not emotions which will lead to throwing away the baby with the bath water.

This will look like giving a dog bad name just because you want to kill it.

In this article, the focus has been on encouraging the understanding of science of genetic modification technologies, as a way to embrace and promote the knowhow of GM technologies and products.

This is fundamental to understanding the benefits and risks of the technology, yet often ignored or taken for granted.

Science or personal views?

A look at the articles on modern biotechnology and particularly GM technology shows that the technology has only been hijacked by debaters, who seem to negotiate for a ransom.

The questions about safety and choice of food, as well as the right to know what one is eating, are all borne out of fear and apprehension.

This has no basis in the science which developed the technology.

For example, it has been observed in the literature that the use of terms such as hybrid, patent, unsafe, and the likes have been associated with GMOs and GM technologies, when in fact, non-GM technology products can also be categorised in the same manner.

Focusing the debate on these concepts do not really bring out solutions or understanding but appreciating the science of the technology does.

Debates on such factors ignore the reality that the scientists who develop the non-GM seeds can and, in most cases, are the same persons who develop the GM seeds sometimes in the same laboratory or confined field.

The use of laboratory agents to clean experimental materials is not only peculiar to GM crop development but non-GM crops as well.

Contracting large seed companies to develop seeds and importing seeds from people who are ‘foreign’ to our agriculture and food systems are not new in our countries.

Seeds (conventional) have always been part of the agriculture and food sectors imported items for years before the introduction of GMOs on our soils.

The science that explains the technology has been left out of the debate and many people, including policymakers and scientists, have been caught up in such traps.

The science that explains the technology has been left out of the debate. Arguments of these types expose people of their ignorance and understanding of the science of the technology.

Arguing that GM seeds development and use are within the domains of the rich and industrial countries and commercial farmers without any evidence on the ground, takes away the confidence from smallholders who for all these years have produced the bulk of the food we consume in the country.

We ridicule so-called peasant and subsistence farmers and insinuate that they are incapable of competing with the so-called big companies.

It has been observed by some authors and writers that such regulations and perhaps labels say nothing about the breeding process but what has been recommended by the regulators is to make the product look acceptable in the markets.

We need to understand the science of the technology. Labels may unnecessarily increase the price of food products when indeed there is nothing wrong with the GM food.

This creates artificial food insecurity in terms of accessibility and affordability. This alone stifles the agenda to meet the 2020 SDG goal of eliminating hunger and reducing poverty. 

While food labelling is good for the information it provides for transparency, labels can also lead to confusion. A case in point is when labelling makes unhealthy food looks healthy because of its high price.

It has been observed that very often, many people have been caught in a trap, where in their attempt to oppose a technology, such as the GMOs, they have ended up promoting what they claim they oppose. In so doing, they have confused the system more than they met it.

While it may seem that there is a scientific consensus on the relative safety of genetic engineering, some articles in the media have continued to suggest various forms of apprehension and fear about the safety of our food system.

It is astonishing to see people providing massive support for GM technology insulin, yet express a great fear for GM foods, even though both enter the bloodstream.

These fears are often not from the science but rooted in the socio-economic anxieties that GMO has come to represent.

This has been part of the reason we unfortunately have failed to address the issues of the complexities of our food system.

It is worrying to know that these debates are happening at the time when small-scale producers are unable to purchase fertiliser, combat diseases and pests on their farms.

Conclusion

As the world encounters challenges, including a changing climate and new pests, scientists need both conventional and non-conventional methods of breeding as tools to help develop a safe and efficient food supply.

Scientists around the globe are using genetic engineering technology to solve problems of food and agriculture, but ’scienceless’ fears and anxieties about the technology are limiting the process.

Africa cannot afford to miss this green revolution and continue to suffer being at the mercy of aids and grants from developed countries aids and grants in the agriculture and food sectors (the sectors which employ majority and hence provide incomes and livelihoods for most households).

African scientists are doing their best to be part of this ongoing technological development and, therefore, nationals must not put unnecessary impediments in their way.

In whatever way you look at it, debates and needless regulations will not augur well for science and technology development in Africa.

Citizens should acknowledge that just as law is used to cure problems of law, Ghanaians should allow science and not fear or alternative facts to be used to explain science.

Journalists and media organisations should, therefore, move the discourse and the argument thereof on GMO towards the understanding of the science of GM technology.

Journalists and media professionals should use their skills to reframe the debate on GMOs as a way to refrain from the fallacy of speculative evidence in the discourse surrounding GM technology in agriculture.