Galamsey’s impact on food security in an importation driven economy

Ghana, a country rich in natural resources and known for its agricultural prowess, is facing a severe threat to its food security due to galamsey, or illegal small-scale gold mining. 

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This article explores how galamsey has ravaged arable lands, and contaminated soils and crops with mercury and other heavy metals, threatening the country’s economic stability by potentially forcing a shift towards an importation-driven economy.

The implications for Ghana's vital cocoa industry and other key agricultural exports are also discussed.

Galamsey activities have led to the widespread destruction of Ghana’s arable lands. The once fertile soils that supported diverse and productive agricultural landscapes are now scarred with pits and heaps of excavated earth.

This destruction is not only an environmental disaster but a significant blow to food security. With less land available for farming, the country’s capacity to produce sufficient food for its population is severely compromised.

Soil, crop contamination

The use of mercury in gold extraction processes by galamsey operators has led to the contamination of soils and water bodies. Mercury, a potent neurotoxin, poses severe health risks to humans and wildlife.

When mercury-contaminated water is used for irrigation, the toxic metal can be absorbed by crops, entering the food chain. Research has shown that heavy metals like mercury can accumulate in plant tissues, particularly in leafy vegetables and grains. This not only affects the safety and quality of food but also poses a long-term health hazard to consumers.

Chronic mercury exposure can lead to neurological and developmental disorders, kidney damage and other serious health issues (WHO, 2017).

Mercury, heavy metals in food chain Mercury and other heavy metals enter the food chain through several pathways:

• Soil to plant transfer: Crops absorb mercury and other heavy metals from contaminated soils. These metals then accumulate in the edible parts of plants.

• Water contamination: Mercury-contaminated water used for irrigation can lead to the direct uptake of mercury by crops.

• Bioaccumulation in animals: Livestock grazing on contaminated pastures or drinking polluted water can accumulate mercury in their tissues, which can then be passed on to humans through meat and dairy products.

If the contamination continues unchecked, Ghana’s agricultural products, especially those for export, could face rejection in international markets due to safety concerns. This would not only damage the country’s reputation but also result in significant economic losses.

Threat agricultural exports

Ghana is one of the world’s leading producers of cocoa, a crop that significantly contributes to the country’s economy. However, the cocoa industry is under threat from galamsey activities.

Contaminated soils and water sources can affect cocoa plantations, reducing yields and compromising the quality of cocoa beans. Heavy metal contamination can lead to the rejection of cocoa exports, jeopardising the livelihoods of thousands of farmers and reducing foreign exchange earnings.

Other key agricultural exports, such as fruits and vegetables, are similarly at risk. The contamination of these products could lead to international trade barriers, further straining the economy.

Dependency on food imports

As galamsey activities render more arable land unusable and contaminate crops, Ghana may increasingly rely on food imports to meet domestic demand. This shift towards an importation-driven economy poses several risks:

• Economic Vulnerability: Dependence on imported food makes Ghana vulnerable to global market fluctuations, price hikes and supply chain disruptions.

• Trade Deficit: Increased food imports can widen the trade deficit, putting additional pressure on the country’s foreign reserves.

• Food Insecurity: Relying on imports can lead to food insecurity, especially if global supply chains are disrupted due to geopolitical issues, pandemics or climate change.

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Statistics

Currently, Ghana imports a significant portion of its food. According to the Ministry of Food and Agriculture, the country spends millions of dollars annually importing staple foods such as rice, wheat and poultry.

This reliance on imports underscores the need to protect and restore domestic agricultural productivity. Addressing the impact of galamsey on food security requires a multi-faceted approach:

• Strict enforcement of mining regulations: Strengthening the enforcement of existing mining regulations can help curb illegal activities and protect agricultural lands.

• Remediation of contaminated lands: Initiatives to remediate contaminated soils and restore arable lands are crucial. Techniques such as phytoremediation, which uses plants to absorb and detoxify heavy metals, can be effective.

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• Support for sustainable farming practices: Promoting agroecological practices that enhance soil health and reduce dependency on chemical inputs can build more resilient agricultural systems.

• Public awareness and education: Raising awareness about the dangers of galamsey and the importance of sustainable farming can mobilise community action and support for conservation efforts.

• Investment in agricultural research: Funding research into sustainable farming techniques and crop varieties that can thrive in less-than-ideal conditions can help mitigate the impact of land degradation.

In conclusion, galamsey poses a significant threat to Ghana’s food security and economic stability. The destruction of arable lands, contamination of soils and crops with mercury and other heavy metals, and potential rejection of exports underscore the urgent need for action. If not addressed, Ghana could become increasingly dependent on food imports, leading to an importation-driven economy and heightened food insecurity.

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By enforcing mining regulations, remediating contaminated lands and promoting sustainable agriculture, Ghana can safeguard its agricultural heritage and ensure a secure food future for its population.

The writer is a Toxicologist.
E-mail: [email protected]

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