Why Ghana cannot wait any longer for biotech crops
The raging debate as to whether Ghana (Africa) should accept biotech crops, including Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) or not will not stop now or tomorrow.
The reason is that anti-GMO campaigners have not stopped or will not stop their activism and propaganda to create fear and dislike for the technology. But the truth is that whether Ghana accepts it or not, the world will not wait for the country, in terms of the adoption of the technology.
The technology has so far received a lot of buy-ins from many advanced and developing countries alike. Countries such as USA, Argentina, Spain, Canada, Australia, India, Pakistan, Romania, Poland, Czech Republic, Paraguay, Uruguay, Slovakia, South Africa, and Nigeria are all making giant strides from the technology.
It is for this reason that the Head of African Union Development Agency-NEPAD (AUDA-NEPAD) flagship biosafety programme, Samuel Edudzi Timpo, has implored African states and governments not to wait to only become buyers of biotechnology products but to become active participants in the development and usage of emerging modern biotechnology tools, including genome editing.
He said biotechnology offers a cost-effective method of seed breeding that could be used to develop crop varieties that could withstand environmental stresses, including pests and diseases as well the changing climatic conditions.
Modern biotechnology techniques are being used for crops such as rice, tomato, maize, sugarcane, soybean and potato to confer pest and disease resistance, higher resilience to abiotic stress, higher nutrient use efficiency and increased yield potential, and in animals like poultry, sheep, goat, cattle and pigs for increased disease resistance, better adaptation to farming or environmental conditions and enhanced animal welfare.
For Mr. Timpon, it would be disappointing should African nations wait for other nations to develop and reap the benefits of biotechnology, including Genome Editing technology, before the region would consider it.
“This is the problem of Africa; we tend to wait for others to go far…and by the time we realise it is okay, we become buyers,” he noted, adding that biotechnology is a good technology that should be embraced by all, particularly African governments—African farmers.
Ghanaian Plant Geneticist and Founding Director of the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) of the University of Ghana, Professor Eric Yirenkyi Danquah, agrees with the call by Mr. Timpon, advancing an argument that African farmers need access to biotech crops more than farmers anywhere else in the world.
His conviction is based on the fact that Africa has more smallholder farmers than anywhere else in the world and these smallholder farmers are at the receiving end of the vagaries of climate change, pest and diseases as well as soil deficiencies.
He argues further that with the adoption and usage of biotech crops, African farmers can increase their production and productivity that will help to ensure food security on the Continent and contributes to the region’s efforts in ensuring food security.
Sustainable Development Goal-2 (SDG-2) is to “end hunger, achieve food security and improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture”.
The United Nations defines food security as always having physical, social and economic access to sufficient healthy and safe food that meets food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.
But ensuring food security on the Continent remains a major challenge. This is supported by the 2022 report of the Agriculture and Food Organisation (FAO).
In the case of Ghana, for instance, the Ghana Statistical Service’s (GSS) annual household income and expenditure survey strategy for the first and second quarters of 2022, indicate that 49.1 per cent of the population experienced food insecurity with higher prevalence in the rural areas than the urban areas.
The GSS statistics is not only troubling but alarming considering the fact that majority of Ghana’s food comes from the rural areas. Another challenge is that majority of these rural farmers are smallholder farmers who rely on the traditional way of farming, which is mainly rain-fed.
Science and data
This is why For Prof. Danquah argues that considering the various challenges that African farmers, particularly smallholder farmers face, the time has come for African governments to use available data on biotech solutions to take decisions that would improve livelihoods and lift millions out of extreme hunger and poverty in the region.
He expressed the concern that “anti-GMO activism has stalled the adoption of genetically engineered crops in many countries, contributing to the perpetuation of unsafe pesticide use, hunger and poverty.”
He said currently, only seven countries in Africa had approved GMOs, stressing that GMOs were under various stages of development in 11 other African countries, including Ghana.
Prof. Danquah was of the view that “there is an urgent need for more food to be produced on less land with less chemicals,” stressing that “the development of improved varieties of our staple crops with high yields and resistance to the physical and biological stresses is absolutely necessary for a green revolution and food self-sufficiency in Ghana.”
He explained that science-based agriculture could preserve critical indigenous foods such as cowpea, millet, cassava, and sorghum, while reducing the environmental impacts of farming.
Prof. Danquah said “on average, genetically engineered crops have cut chemical pesticide use by 37 per cent, increased crop yields by two per cent, boosted farmer profit by 38 per cent, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 12 million cars off the road.”
The celebrated Plant Geneticist further maintained that farmers across the globe were struggling with the devastating impacts of climate change and pointed out that disrupted rainfall pattern, drought, extreme weather events, pest infestations, plant diseases, crops losses, and hunger had made it necessary for African governments to adopt biotech solutions such as the GMO crops.
He believes that “Better seeds developed through genetic engineering offer hope”, and added that “Let us not allow regulatory delays to prevent millions of farmers from accessing this life-saving technology.”
Prof. Danquah also called for the integration of the rapidly evolving tools of modern biotechnology, including genome editing into crop improvement programmes to make agriculture “in Ghana more productive and sustainable.”
Similarly, he called on the government to give farmers in the country a free choice to select and adopt crops developed through modern science in plant breeding including the GM technology, saying “Ghana needs a comprehensive science policy that puts science on the top of the agricultural transformation agenda.”
He noted that biotech solutions and innovations enable scientists to be able to solve agricultural problems that conventional farming methods were unable to do, saying “This can be achieved with precision and efficiency using plant biotechnologies and genomics as important tools.”
For Prof. Danquah, biotech innovations protected crops against insects and weeds, the two major challenges that militate against crop yields and lead to crop failure worldwide.
He also expressed concern about the growing misinformation on GMO crops in the country, saying “It is 27 years since the first GMOs were released and I am not aware of a single credible food or feed problem on the safety of GMOs.”
In addition, he noted, “There is a very strong scientific consensus globally on GMOs just as scientists are on climate change.”
For Prof. Danquah, it is worrying that in spite of the fact that scientific official reports on the safety and benefits of GMOs had been published by the World Health Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organisation, National Academic of Sciences (USA), Royal Society (UK), American Medical Association (USA), French Academy of Medicine, European Commission, US Food and Drugs Administration, Society of Toxicology, and Institute of Food Technology, some uninformed people still peddled falsehood about GMOs.
To allay the fears of people on biotechnology, the AUDA-NEPAD flagship biosafety programme boss, Samuel Timpo explains that the African Union was building the capacities of its member states to be able to take up the technology.
He pointed out that the AU had come up with a policy at the Continental level that provides guidance for any member state.
He explained that biotechnology has the potential to improve “our livelihoods or transform our societies.”
For him, the time has come for African nations to embrace the biotechnology to help advance their agriculture and improve the livelihoods of their people.
“So, we have a situation where there is a suite of tools that our not-too-resourced institutions can actively participate in to set the research agenda. Crops of national interest could be pursued in a very cost-effective manner and it is the reason we must embrace it,” Mr. Timpon noted.
For her part, the Acting Director in charge of Knowledge Management of AUDA-NEPAD, Madam Florence Nazare, said there had been a decisive effort at the African Union level to ensure that Africa is “primarily driven by knowledge economies.”
The knowledge economies, she explained, implies that Africa is driven by science, technology and innovation, explaining that the African Union was interested in inclusive development that pulls everyone along.
She noted that the AU was interested in how to industrialise the African economy, taking advantage of all relevant and available technologies and innovations, including emerging technologies in biotechnology such as the genome editing tool.
Madam Nazare said biotechnology, particularly genome editing technology, was one of the promising tools that could drive the development and industrialisation agenda of the African economy from the agricultural perspective.
“We are looking at the linkages between agriculture; optimising agriculture, not just enhancing productivity but ensuring that we can optimally produce…” she noted.
In his contribution to the adoption of biotech solutions, the Director General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, CSIR, Prof. Paul Bosu, noted that “Science and technology will continue to play a critical role towards improving agricultural productivity and improving farmers’ health and wealth”.
That, he said, there was the need to sustain the "conversation on the critical role of modern biotechnology in agriculture, health, conservation and management of our natural resources."
For him, the application of modern biotechnology tools has become more pressing than ever in the face of challenges that retire our desire to increase the productivity of our farmers and other value-chain actors.
Similarly, the Director, in charge of the CSIR-Instituter for Scientific and Technological Information, Dr. Seth Awuku Manteaw, said the CSIR was prepared to lead the biotechnology solutions.
“We are really prepared. We have built the critical mass of people in this area. What we need is an investment; public sector investment—budgetary support.”