In a piece in myjoyonline, Food Sovereignty Ghana (FSG) opposed the nomination of Dr Owusu Afriyie Akoto as minister-designate for Food and Agriculture due to his alleged stance on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
The purpose of this rejoinder is to address the habitual misinformation of FSG on issues of GMOs and modern technology policy considerations on agriculture. By clearing the air on FSG’s misinformation I am endorsing His Excellency President Akufo-Addo’s nomination of Dr Afriyie Akoto as Minister-Designate for Agriculture.
The main thrust of the FSG’s argument is that GMOs are not safe but that the minister-designate for agriculture, Dr Afriyie Akoto believes that GMOs are safe for use in agriculture. Due to this, the FSG comes to the ridiculous conclusion that the President should reconsider Dr Akoto’s nomination as Minister for Food and Agriculture.
It is worth pointing out that no technology is entirely safe. Rules and regulations are put in place to ensure a level of safety we can live with. Conventional and organic foods carry risks of toxicity and allergenicity just as GM foods. In addition, organic foods carry the risk of microbial contamination. Food is considered safe to consume if there is reasonable certainty that no harm will result from the intended use.
Dr Akoto’s stand is vindicated by the overwhelming endorsement of GM safety by the global scientific community and regulatory bodies in the US (Food and Drug Authority) and the EU (European Food Safety Authority) and major religious bodies. Studies over the past 30 years on the safety of genetically engineered (same in this context as GM) foods conclude that GM foods are as safe as conventional foods. Close to 610 publications and over the past three decades attest to the safety of GM foods http://chilebio.cl/documentos/Publicaciones.pdf. No groups of foods have seen more rigorous tested for safety to humans, animals and the environment than GM foods.
A decade of research (2001 – 2010) into GMOs was commissioned by the European Union (EU) Commission; the conclusion was that: “There is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants and organisms.” http://ec.europa.eu/research/biosociety/library/brochures_reports_en.htm.
A 2003 quote Velasio De Paolis, a professor of canon law at the Pontifical Urban University, has said that it was “easy to say no to GM food if your stomach is full” is instructive. See Wikipedia Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_on_genetically_modified_foods
The following comment by the WHO on GM food safety is instructive:
“GM foods currently available on the international market have passed safety assessments and are not likely to present risks for human health. In addition, no effects on human health have been shown as a result of the consumption of such foods by the general population in the countries where they have been approved. Continuous application of safety assessments based on the Codex Alimentarius principles and, where appropriate, adequate post market monitoring, should form the basis for ensuring the safety of GM foods”. http://www.who.int/foodsafety/areas_work/food-technology/faq-genetically-modified-food/en/.
Over 80% of the soybean imported into the EU for animal feed is GM. It should be noted, however, that the feeding of GM soybean or products thereof does not lead to a GM “contamination” of the resulting animal product- meat or milk. Ingested DNA (the genetic material in the transformed food) is broken down to nucleotides (the DNA building blocks) and excreted. The DNA in the plant eaten is not found in the animal product.
It is true that the vast majority of US residents consume GM foods with NO REPORTED ADVERSE EFFECT ON HEALTH despite a minimum of 20 years consumption of such foods. Maize is the stable food of many in South Africa. Over 80% of maize consumed is GM. No reported incidence of sickness or death from GM maize consumption has been reported that is wholly attributed to the GM.
In the case of Ghana, after all said and done, the country has a Biosafety Act 831 of 2011 that regulates all GM crops or products under research likely to enter the food chain eventually. Ghanaians should be comfortable with the safety of GM products certified for use by the National Biosafety Authority that is in place.
In recent times, over 100 Nobel laureates in diverse areas including medicine, physics, chemistry, physiology, lAiterature, economics and peace in their open letter of 29th June, 2016 to Greenpeace, the United Nations and Governments all over the world called for the support of GMO precision agriculture and condemned activities of NGO that thwart progress in the area http://supportprecisionagriculture.org/nobel-laureate-gmo-letter_rjr.html). See also http://supportprecisionagriculture.org/.
In a 26 October, 2016 editorial, the Wall Street Journal welcomes U.K. Ag Minister George Eustice’s call for science-based GMO policies as UK government reviews regulations in preparation for Brexit, noting UK has been “hostage” to anti-GMO sentiment across the EU. See http://www.wsj.com/articles/britains-gmo-liberation-1477525411
There is overwhelming science-based evidence to vindicate Dr Afriyie akoto’s stand on GM food safety. In his free time, he could give a lesson to Food Sovereignty Ghana on GM food safety!
The FSG write-up contains numerous other loose and patently false statements which need to be addressed briefly below.”Keep in mind the reason GMOs were developed was not to assist farmers or to strengthen agriculture but to create seed monopolies. They are designed ultimately to claim ownership of all the seeds used in Ghana and extract the wealth of Ghana’s agriculture for wealthy foreign corporate profits”- FSG
Response: This cannot happen in Ghana as long as public research institutions exist and are adequately funded to work. The Ministry of Food and Agriculture has just published the first catalogue of crop varieties released and registered in Ghana. Vol. 1, 2015. The research institutions, predominantly CSIR and breeders who developed the varieties are listed in the register. Seeds of these cannot in the foreseeable future be replaced by imported corporate seeds and the farming community held to ransom. The seeds are stored in gene banks.
The national gene bank is the CSIR-Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute. Some varieties not in the register may be kept in store at the institutions (universities or other public research institutions) that developed them. Farmers have kept their own seeds (landraces) for generations. All these are not likely to disappear due to external corporate adverse activities. External corporate activity in the seed sector is not inherently bad and should be welcome within the laws governing the seed sector. See the Plant and Fertiliser Act 803 of 2010. Benefits will arise from technology transfer and job creation throughout the value chain if seed companies are encouraged to do business in Ghana. Countries in Eastern and Southern Africa have benefited from such relations and Ghana cannot be an exception.
“News just coming in today indicates that Burkina Faso cotton production has increased after it discontinued Monsanto’s Bt cotton variety”- FSG.“GMOs have woefully failed in neighbouring Burkina Faso, it would be unconscionable for Ghana to have a GMO minister responsible for our agriculture!” – FSG
Response: This unfortunate statement arises from a poor understanding of the scientific underpinnings of the Burkina Faso Bt cotton challenge. Monsanto owned the Bt gene, not the cotton variety into which the gene was put. This was owned by Burkina Faso. The inherent quality of the cotton variety accounted for its attributes like quality of the lint and yield. The Bt gene inserted (owned by Monsanto) has the sole purpose of protecting the cotton from the insect (cotton bollworm).
By controlling the insect pests on the cotton, the yield would rise while the cost of production went down due to the decrease in pesticide use. The cotton was genetically engineered to produce its own pesticide- the Bt toxin that is specific to the bollworm group of insects. It has no effect on other insect groups, humans and animals.
Over the years, desirable characters of the cotton like staple length (cotton fibre length) went down due, probably, to the fact that the staple length character was not fixed. This could, in turn, be caused by the fact that seeds were recycled for far too long. This is an educated speculation. I believe the scientists at INERA, Burkina Faso, and the counterpart of Ghana’s CSIR will crack the problem.
If a new cotton variety that is non-Bt has been introduced, yield could rise but the cost of production will suffer due to the increased use of insecticides that will arise in the absence of the Bt gene. Note that non-Bt cotton in Burkina Faso attracted spraying against insect pests 8 times as opposed to 2 times for Bt-cotton. I leave the environmental and health effects of excessive spraying with pesticides to the imagination of the reader.
Ghana SHOULD CONTINUE TO DEVELOP its Bt (GM) COTTON but will not use the Burkinabe variety that has failed. In fact the Bt cotton trials that are advanced in Ghana are not based on the Burkinabe variety. The current thinking on Bt cotton in Africa is the use of Indian varieties which are hybrid as the base material for genetic engineering. India uses predominantly Bt (GM) cotton and is currently (2015/2016) the world’s largest producer of cotton (5.7m metric tons) followed by China (4.8m tons) and the USA (2.8m metric tons) https://www.statista.com/statistics/263055/cotton-production-worldwide-by-top-countrie. As at 2015, 76% of cotton produced in the world was GM (www.isaaa.org).
“A wide coalition of stakeholders has already expressed concern about the introduction of GMO into our food system. These include the Christian Council of Ghana, The Catholic Bishops Conference, The Ghana Muslim Mission, The Office of The Chief Imam, The Peasant Farmers Association, the Vegetarian Association of Ghana, the General Agricultural Workers Union (GAWU) of the Trade Union Congress, The Convention People’s Party and the Rastafari Council and Food Span among others. Surely this constitutes a significant collection of key stakeholders in this nation who will disagree with Ghana continuing down the path we seem to be heading regarding adopting GMOs in our agriculture”-FSG.
Response: This is unfortunate. It is likely that these are the groups that have been reached by FSG and taken the misinformation and fear mongering usually peddled by FSG. It is hoped that as funding becomes available, the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) aided by the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB), the Programme on Biosafety Systems (PBS), African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE), International Service for Acquisition of Agric-biotechnology Applications (ISAAA), the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB), the Ghana National Association of Farmers and Fishermen (GNAFF) and the Biotechnology and Stewardship for Sustainable Agriculture (BSSA) which I head, will enhance its outreach activities to properly inform the organisations listed by FSG above.
It is hoped that H. E. President Akufo-Addo, will ignore this piece of misinformation from FSG to clear the way for the vetting of Dr Afriyie Akoto who is inclined to support modern technologies in agriculture on a need basis. A similar misinformation by FSG contributed to the delay in the passage of the Plant Breeders Bill that is designed to catalyse the development of new plant varieties for Ghana by protecting, through patents, investment in variety development.
I hope H. E. President Akuffo Addo will ignore the unfortunate request from FSG to drop your considered choice of Dr Afriyie Akoto as minister-designate for Food and Agriculture.
Source: Prof. Walter Sandow Alhassan, Former Director-General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR); Director, Biotechnology and Stewardship for Sustainable Agriculture (BSSA); Senior Adviser at Programs for Biosafety (PBS) Ghana, and member of Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology (Ghana Chapter)