Thursday, 30 January 2014

GM crops and the need to conduct debate on evidence


Ghana is at the cross roads, debating the introduction of genetically modified crops (commonly referred to as GM crops) into the country.

Public debates are generally good if conducted in an atmosphere of civility and with the intention of arriving at evidence-based decisions.

The ongoing debate on genetically modified crops is not unusual and the literature on the diffusion of innovations is replete with examples of individuals, groups and organizations rising up against the introduction of new ideas or technologies.

Historical antecedents to debates on new ideas dates back to ancient times and they were all resolved by evidence-based science.

Ghanaians should therefore conduct the current debate not on emotions or ideological inclinations but with available empirical and science-based-evidence.

From what is going in the media, it appears that there is lack of information about GM crops and the proponents have failed to put up convincing arguments for the introduction of the GM crops into Ghana.

The scale seems to be tilting in favour of those who oppose the introduction, in spite of the fact that, the premise for their opposition, although sound it may seem, is not based on available facts and evidence.

They have sought to use the media and the streets to shape public opinion.

To begin with, the introduction of GM crops like the introduction of the hybrids in India in the 60s has also received its fair share of resistance to innovations for three main reasons:

The first was the fear of bacteria. The second source of concern that has taken more of an ideological path is the source of the GM products.

The third group of concerns relate to environmental contamination of the newly created plant or animal products.

Besides, popularization and association of the terms such as engineering and genetic to the breeding technique may also have something to do with the resistance.

Sometimes, names do matter! Genetic engineering has been, in all respects, an extension of what human beings have been doing for tens of thousands of years breeding new plants or animals.

The GM crops currently on the market are aimed at protecting the crop against the incidence of pests, diseases and higher yields.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) food from these crops have by far higher standards of evaluation before they are released than crops bred through conventional breeding techniques.

For example, all GM crops are screened against allergenicity, whereas crops bred through conventional techniques may not.

The regulations and conventions covering the release of GM materials are much stricter to ensure safety for human consumption.

Indeed GM crops are being used to feed animals, cattle and chicken in Brazil, Europe and the US and for all you know, some of these animal products have already found their way to Ghana.

Whilst the debate is going on, Ghana is behind Burkina Faso and more than 28 other countries who have adopted the GM technology. To date more than 17 million farmers on close to 160 million hectares of land are using GM crops, globally.

Countries such as Brazil and India, for example, initially positioned themselves as producers of non-GM crops. They have since then seen the light and made a u-turn and are now major players in GM products and benefiting from their decision to adopt.

It is a truism in diffusion science that early adopters reap most of the benefits of the innovation. Ghana is one of those countries yet to move in this direction.

The key reason for the adoption of GM materials by these countries is the welfare of the poor and benefits the practice brings to them and the country and not the reverse. Any observer of the Ghanaian farming scene knows the difference between those who use improved seeds and those who replant their seeds.

Mostly the poor replant and it is advisable to move them out of this practice. The poor therefore stand to lose.

In Burkina Faso today, GM seeds of cotton are being planted by the poor and their lives are being improved.

History is replete with a similar scenario in the late 1950s when India and Pakistan at the verge of famine sought to introduce hybrid wheat and rice into their farming systems.

The same arguments about health, cost, multinationals manipulation, and the environment were raised.

The governments of the two countries mustered the political will and imported tons of improved hybrids, and crop yields shot up from one ton per hectare to an average of 5 tons per hectare through what has become known as the green revolution.

India was not only able to produce enough for the country but became a net exporter with benefits to the poor and the country. Sub Saharan Africa stood by and watched these countries reap the benefits.

Today, yield levels for most crops in Africa are where India was 50 years ago. It seems that public attention has been focused on the risk side more out of ignorance, emotions and ideologies rather than sound judgment of the benefits of the technique and innovations.

Concerns over health and environmental threats are valid and has led to very strict regulations and protocols being put in place by countries and international bodies such as the FAO and WHO, and we should be thankful to those who pointed them out.

What is required is the strict compliance, monitoring and enforcement of the guidelines and protocols for GM seeds and foods and not a ban. Ghana should not be left behind this time around and can no longer afford to ignore science and innovation in farming.

By Charles Annor-Frempong Ph.D, Box 6408, Cantoments, Accra. Ghana

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