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Ghana’s biosafety authority: Granting GMO import permits to be based on regulations, international best practices

Clearly, it will not be out of place to declare April 2024 as “the month of Genetic Engineering GE)” in Ghana, because the publication of the approval of 14 new GE products, by the USDA in its Global Agricultural Information Network (GAIN) Report hit headlines of major news channels in the country.

Eric Okoree
Chief Executive Officer, Ghana’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA), Eric Okoree

The core message of the brief report was to announce the approval by Ghana’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA) of 14 new biotechnology products comprising eight corn events and six soybean events for placement on the market for commercialisation.

While the report appears to have stirred up a hornet’s nest, as reactions from a cross section of the Ghanaian public suggest that these products have already been imported into the country; it has also established that the NBA has its feet on the ground.

The authority says the products are not yet in the country. “…the NBA wishes to state categorically that those events or products have not been imported into the country for food, feed, or processing yet.” What the NBA has done is to register the products and events to allow for importation for those purposes by any individual or group interested in them.

In a press release issued to shed some more light on the matter, NBA’s Chief Executive Officer, Eric Okoree, stated that “any entity interested will require an import permit from the NBA to be able to import them for use in the country.”

He assured the public that such decisions would be based on the relevant regulations and international best practices. “It is important to note that the NBA as the government agency responsible for the regulation of genetic modification (GM) and its related products has laid down procedures in line with the Biosafety Act, 2011 (Act 831) and with international best practices in deciding on any application brought before it.”

Mr. Okoree further assured Ghanaians of the safety of GM product(s) that have received the NBA’s approval; notably, the Bt Cowpea submitted by SARI and the 14 events submitted by Bayer West-Central Africa S.A. and Syngenta South Africa to be registered for food, feed or for processing.

The CEO, who is a Biotech Regulator, explained that the 14 registered products, made up of eight maize and six soybean events, are not intended for cultivation, but rather for direct use as food, feed, or for processing.

So, approval was granted under Section 13 of the Biosafety Act, 2011 (Act 831) and Regulation 15 of the Biosafety (Management of Biotechnology) Regulations, 2019 (LI 2383) following the evaluation of data and information supplied by the applicant and a thorough risk assessment by the NBA Technical Advisory Committee (TAC). This is an 11-member Committee set up to purposely provide scientific advice to the NBA Board on matters regarding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO). This Committee is responsible for carrying out risk assessment and auditing of applications at the request of the Board.

The Application Approval Process

The press statement also clarified the application approval process. Step one is for the TAC to conduct a risk assessment and submit the findings to the Board.

So, in relation to the 14 products and events, having received the applications, the authority evaluated the events in line with available data provided by the applicants as well as guidelines set out by the Biosafety Clearing House (BCH), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Biotrack Product Database and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO)’s Genetically Modified food platform to determine the under a set of listed conditions:

“Development of the modified events including the molecular biology data that characterise the genetic change; proximate analyses; major constituents (fats, proteins, carbohydrates) and minor constituents (minerals and vitamins); composition of, and nutritional information (including anti-nutrients) on the GM products compared to their conventional counterparts); and the potential for causing allergic reactions.”

The other conditions are: “microbiological and chemical safety of the event(s); the potential for the production of new toxins in the events(s); and, the potential for any unintended or secondary effects.

According to the statement, no negative results were gotten following this thorough process. “… after this thorough risk assessment and evaluation, there were no adverse findings with any demonstrable history of biosafety concerns.”

The statement cited countries such as Argentina, Australia, Uruguay, Singapore, Thailand, USA, Nigeria, and South Africa that have already given similar approvals and have confirmed the same to be as safe as their conventional counterparts.

Issues raised by concerned groups/individuals

Touching on the issue concerned individuals have raised about BT Cowpea released on the blind side of Ghanaian consumers, the statement said enough room was created for public participation by the public especially farmers, as mandated by the Biosafety Act.

Additionally, the Authority duly published the Confined Field Trials in the Ghana Gazette of June 25, 2021, and the Environmental Release notification was placed in the July 26, 2022 Issue 123. The Daily Graphic edition of Thursday, June 22, 2023, also published the notice of environmental release.

The statement described as unfortunate the call to reject any GM seeds that will be supplied. It noted that the NBA recognises the need for Ghanaians to adapt to emerging plant breeding technologies in the agricultural space for sustained crop improvement and food security.

“We wish to reiterate the fact that the improved yield and sustained food security will rather inure to the benefits of farmers, rather than impoverish them as being speculated by sections of the media,” the statement said, adding that “there is a robust biosafety system in place to ensure the safety of GMOs officially released in the country.”

Therefore, the NBA assured Ghanaians that the Biosafety Ac, 2011 (Act 831) will be effectively implemented to safeguard the environment and health of Ghanaians. The NBA will also continue to monitor “for any unapproved GMOs in the country and follow up on the performance of those GMOs already approved in the country.”

The Biosafety Act

The passage of the Biosafety Act, 2011 (Act 831) by Parliament on December 31, 2011, operationalised biosafety in Ghana by establishing the NBA, its governing body and the various committees/units necessary for its smooth and efficient functioning. The objectives of the Act are first to ensure an adequate level of protection in the field of safe development, transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms resulting from biotechnology that may have an adverse effect on health and the environment; and secondly, to establish a transparent and predictable process to review and make decisions on genetically modified organisms.

By Ama Kudom-Agyemang

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