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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Biotech can’t resolve every farming associated problem, say experts

Whenever agricultural related stakeholders, particularly farmers, are invited to a workshop or forum, they attend in great anticipation – to get answers to all kinds of problems plaguing their activities.

Gershon Wordzra, the Central Regional Director of Agriculture, with one of the diseased oranges, which he said farmers could avoid by maintaining their farms

So, at one such forums in Cape Coast organised by the Ghana Chapter of the Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Africa, one farmer came with the hope of finding solutions to what he described as “a strange disease” plaguing his orange orchard. But at the end of the meeting, the experts made it clear that “biotechnology cannot resolve every farming associated problem.”

The purpose of the forum was to sensitise the stakeholders on biotechnology as one of the options for addressing some crop production related challenges. So, in the course of the discussion, when Farmer Joseph Amoah showed participants several diseased oranges, it was obvious he was expecting answers from the technology being talked about.

As a young teacher posted to Asuansi in the Abura Asebu Kwamangkese District of the Central Region, Mr. Amoah established an orange orchard in 1973 and has been having good harvests and enjoying the proceeds for many years. However, his joy over the fruitfulness of the orchard fizzled off after the trees started bearing diseased fruits about five years ago.

And, for an answer, he got a gentle rebuke, which was a solution in disguise from Gershon Wordzra, the Central Regional Director of Agriculture. He made it clear to Farmer Amoah that the disease afflicting his oranges was a fungi disease, which occurs as result of an un-kept farm environment.

“We always tell you to manage your orange farms well and clear them of weeds, especially once they start fruiting or else this disease will become a problem for you,” Mr. Wordzra said.

Known as Anthracnose of orange, the disease, according to a Michigan State University brochure, is very fatal for farmers because “Anthracnose can reduce a beautiful harvest into rotted waste in just a few days.”

Therefore, Mr. Wordzra stressed that farms needed to be tended for farmers to make the make gains of their investments.  “Farms are like humans, they also need care and hygiene, crops are like our bodies so nourish them, take good care of them and you will be very happy,” Mr. Wordzra stated.

He observed that farmers are often reluctant to spend money to maintain their farms and urged them to make the needed sacrifices in order to get the most of their farms. Mr. Wordzra also reminded farmers that, “in citrus cultivation, sanitation and regular pruning are very important.”

Other resource persons at the meeting including Country Coordinator of the Programme for Biosafety Systems (PBS), Daniel Osei Fosu, who explained that the need for one to keep his or her farm has nothing to do with biotechnology. Thereby, establishing the point that “whether cultivated crops were from genetically modified seeds or conventional breeding, maintenance of one’s farm, was of essence.”

In an interview, Mr. Fosu said, “Biotechnology cannot resolve issues of diseases from un-kept farms, the technology is applied to resolve specific crop productivity issues including drought and pests that undermine food security.” Thus, biotechnology, genetic modification or engineering should not in any way be the magic wand to maintain one’s farm, he added.

The scenario appears to be a clear pointer to how biotechnology has become the agricultural scapegoat. For instance, during an interaction organised by Alliance for Science, Ghana with officials of the National Biosafety Authority, one participant stated that, based on his personal experience, biotechnology crops can never do well in Ghana and therefore must not be encouraged.

According to him, a relation who lives in Canada came home recently and brought with him orange seeds, which they sowed, and it never germinated. In his view, “the seeds did not grow because they were genetically modified and cannot do well on our soils.” Dr. Richard Ampadu Ameyaw of the Science Technology Policy and Research Institute (STEPRI) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), who attended the meeting, responded that “so far oranges are not among the crops or plants that have been genetically modified across the world. What is available are improved varieties made possible through conventional breeding methods.”

Dr. Ameyaw explained that the “inability of the orange seeds to grow could be due to the unsuitability of the soil for that particular species of orange,” adding that, “some plants and crops tend to be endemic and once they are moved out of their native soils, can never do well in other soils and that could be case of those orange seeds.”

It is for this reason that improved crop varieties whether by conventional or through biotechnology methods are tested. In Ghana, the Biosafety Act, 2011 (Act 831) provides for intensive field trials to be conducted for genetically modified seeds. The essence is to ascertain the adaptability of a modified crop to the soil in terms of its ability to grow and manifest the traits for which it was engineered such as pest resistance or drought tolerant, and ultimately to produce good yields.

In Ghana, leading Ghanaian scientists are spearheading the process of field trials in genetically modified crops. They include Dr. Mumuni Abudulai of the Savannah Agricultural Research Institute of the CSIR. He is the Principal Investigator of the PBR Cowpea project in Ghana and attests that the PBR cowpea has successfully gone through all the various stages of field trials.

According to Dr. Abudulai, “the dossier for its final release are currently being analysed and what is good about this particular cowpea is that it offers an economically and ecologically sustainable way to combat pod bearers, for which they are no natural sources of resistance.”

He said the trial results demonstrates that the PBR cowpea “when adopted by farmers could reduce the frequency of insecticide sprays to two at the most for increased yields…result in important savings to the farmer from insecticide costs and … reduce the health hazards associated with insecticide sprays, resulting in improved health of farm families.”

From the Crop Research Institute of the CSIR, Dr. Maxwell Asante is leading trials of the NEWEST Rice (Nitrogen Use Efficient, Water Use Efficient and Salt Tolerant rice) Project in Ghana, for which field trials are still on-going. He says, “This rice has been modified to mitigate the effects of climate change on rice production among other things.”

Prof. (Mrs.) Marian D. Quain is a Principal Research Scientist of CSIR’s Crop Research Institute and leader of the Biotechnology Research Group at the Institute. She is of the view that while “the technology is not a panacea for all our agricultural problems,” it is desirable because it is geared towards “alleviating poverty, hunger and malnutrition in the sub-Saharan region and will ultimately improve food production, enhance nutritional contents of crops and contribute to economic growth.”

Dr. Quinn said a survey conducted not too long indicates that “majority of respondents are in favor of introducing genetically engineered crops in Ghana.” She attributed the main challenges to the process to “the very fast rate at which the technology advances,” and the need for Ghana “to secure substantial investment in cutting edge technologies and human resource development.”

By Ama Kudom-Agyemang

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