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Thursday, September 21, 2023

‘It’s possible you’ve been unknowingly eating GM foods’

Victoria Adankwa, an Agriculture Officer, is one of the many Ghanaian women fervently looking forward to the uptake of agricultural biotechnology in the country. And she does not hide her passion for the technology.


The occasion to bare her thoughts about the technology came at the June 5, 2018 Biotechnology and Biosafety Sensitisation Workshop in Cape Coast, organised by the Ghana Chapter of the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa, for stakeholders in the Central Region.

Victoria stated: “Since the attempt by man to enhance crop and seed production alters their original composition, it means we have been consuming genetically modified crops all this while, so why the protest against the wholesale uptake of biotechnology in Ghana?”

Her comments bring the discussion on the issue to the point, where the public needs to appreciate that current food crops including staples like corn have gone through some form of evolution even as societies have evolved. “Human civilisation evolved in parallel with crop domestication and breeding,” says Prof. Channa Prakash of University of Tuskegee, Alabama, USA.

He was addressing a gathering of international and national research scientists, policy makers and agricultural officers at a two-day seminar in Accra on Advance Agricultural Biotechnology, Biosafety and Regulatory Approaches. The seminar, which took place on from September 18 to 19, 2018 was organised by the US Department of Agriculture Office of Agricultural Affairs at the US Embassy in Ghana.

Prof. Prakash’s presentation as well as those of the other resource persons, among other things, traced the genesis of biotechnology to thousands of years ago. “Humans have been changing the genetics of crops since the dawn of age… by saving and replanting of seeds collected in the wild.”

He explained that, in the wild state, plants and crops regenerated mainly through seed dispersal system as seeds stayed attached to plants. “The human action of saving and replanting seeds therefore interrupted the natural process of plant regeneration,” Professor Prakash added.

This literary means that most of the crops we have been eating all these years have experienced some form of genetic modification, through deliberate human action. So, while sections of society would want to wish the technology and its products away, as a present day dangerous and unneeded introduction into the food chain, the truth is that humans have been consuming genetically modified foods, since the times people started cultivating crops.

Prof. Naglaa Abdallah of the Faculty of Agriculture, Cairo University, agreed that genetically modified foods have been with man for ages. “Thousands of years ago, farmers were altering the genetic makeup of the crops they grow by selecting the best-looking plants and seeds and saving them to plant for the next season. The selection was for features such as faster growth, higher yields, pest and disease resistance and sweeter fruits,” she said.

Therefore, the corn, water melon, carrot, cabbage, and broccoli among other edibles, which people take for granted are in their normal natural states, have either been altered from their original states or are derivatives from other crop varieties. And, believe or not, if you love strawberries for instance, which is now seen as a fruit for lovers and therefore packaged for Valentine Day celebration, be assured that it was not one of the fruits that were in the Garden of Eden. According to Prof. Abdallah, “modern day strawberries never existed.”

Thus, the process that started as an ancient human activity to access readily available quality seeds for good yields, have been perfected in modern times, to facilitate or fast track the process of acquisition of high-quality seeds with the assurance of better produce in terms of quality and quantity.

Both Prof. Abdallah, who is also the Director of Egypt Biotechnology Information Centre of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Application (EBIC ISAAA) and Prof. Prakash see modern biotechnology crops as making significant contribution to the global food chain. Global cultivation of biotechnology crops includes corn, soybeans, cotton and potato, among others.

For the past 20 years, biotech crops have proved to be highly beneficial to the 28 countries actively cultivating them and the over 18 million farmers engaged in the cultivation. Pesticide use has reduced by 37%, while, crop yields have increased by 22%. Total farm income over the period is estimated at over $150 billion. Moreover, biotech crops and products are some of the safest in the world, because of the rigid regulatory process the development is subjected to.

Profs. Abdallah and Prakash further agree that the major challenge to the fast deployment of the technology is the regulatory costs and length of time involved its development. The latter noted that the development of one event “can take up to 14 years at a cost of $35 million.”

As to how countries like Ghana can adopt the technology at less cost and in short time, Professor Prakash urged the “government to come up with a very strong support for biotechnology, acknowledge that it is one of the most important tools available to enhance agriculture, and assure Ghanaians of the safety of biotechnology, providing the evidence that its products have been used around the world without any problems for over 20 year.

The Deputy Minister for Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI), Madam Patricia Appiagyei, earlier at the opening session, said the government recognises the potential benefits that the country can derive from genetically modified organisms and their related products. She added that the necessary biosafety processes and policies have also been developed to address potential adverse effects on health and the environment.

Experts say they are not exactly surprised about the resistance from some sections of society to the acceptance of biotechnology crops and products. This is because most of the world’s scientific breakthroughs over the years, have been initially opposed to by society.

For instance, it took the world 100 years to accept pasteurisation, a process that kills disease causing organisms known as pathogens to render food safe to eat. To date, pasteurisation remains the most important operation in milk processing.

However, some Ghanaian scientists are of the view that it is totally unnecessary for the country to wait any longer to fully embrace biotechnology as the required field trials of the two selected crops – NEWEST Rice and BT Cowpea have successfully been done. They wonder why Ghana should keep waiting, when sister countries including Nigeria have granted approval for commercial releases of biotech crops.

By Ama Kudom-Agyemang, Accra

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