Speak Magazine

Field Notes

Between a rock and a hard place, GM crops or not?

By: Kristian Jebsen

ACCRA – As the international community gears up to commemorate World Food Day on October 16, Ghana is considering whether or not it can solve its food security issues by planting GM crops.

In 2011 Ghana passed the Biosafety Act, legalizing the use of genetically modified foods. Strangely enough, field trials of GM rice and cotton are only now being run to determine whether or not GM crops are safe for cultivation and consumption. While field trials are running, the debate is raging.

“I prefer to eat a product that is going to kill me in 30 years [time], than to stay hungry and die today” says Dr. Abdulai Salifu, Director-General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the institute responsible for conducting the field trials of cotton and rice.

Dr. Salifu is referring to the bountiful harvests of cassava, cabbage, tomatoes, rice, corn and eggplant which would, according to him, result from the introduction of GM crops.

Those who support the introduction of GM foods claim that it will ease the burden of poverty and malnutrition in a country where 13 percent of the population either experiences or is vulnerable to food insecurity. According to the UN’s World Food Program, this number could only increase as climate change influences crop cycles and yields, impacting the stomachs and pocketbooks of Ghana’s small scale farmers.

With 36 percent of Ghanaian children under the age of five suffering from chronic malnutrition, a solution to the problem is imperative. Not surprisingly therefore, GM foods are touted as the answer to Ghana’s woes.

But an Accra based non-profit, Food Security Ghana, is not convinced GM crops are the answer.

“The economic impact on the lives of the farmers will be disastrous” says Duke Tagoe of FSG, “the origin of food is seed. Whoever controls the seed controls the entire food chain. These seeds are not owned by any African entity, they are owned by American companies.”

Farmers he says, will become dependent on foreign companies for access to seeds for cultivation, thereby increasing poverty levels and detracting from the independence of small scale farmers.

The distrust of American interests is understandable. A leaked cable published through Wikileaks indicates that the US Embassy in Accra funded and supported promotion of American GM crops in Ghana in the lead up to the passing of the Biosafety Act.

Foreign interests aside, GM crops will not increase yields, says Ali Masmadi Jehu-Appiah, chair of FSG. Instead, GM crops will make future production increasingly difficult as insects and pests build immunity to the produce.

Evidence from India, China and the US indicate that the long term use of such crops reduce profits and increase debts of small scale farmers while harming the environment says Jehu-Appiah.

The solution rather, is to focus on agricultural infrastructure, most importantly, by improving access to water.

Less than 2 percent of arable land in Ghana is irrigated. Ghana’s farmers rely on rainfall to furnish their crops. The same goes for the rest of Africa, approximately 6 percent of arable land in Africa is irrigated. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, proper irrigation methods could boost productivity on the continent by 50 percent.

Dr. Frank Rijsberman, chief executive of CGIAR Consortium on agricultural research says that although GM seeds would generate significant increase in yields, better access to inputs and farming systems could go a long way to improving production rates in Ghana.

Ghana is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The country will not see economic growth or poverty reduction without significant improvements to an agricultural sector which accounts for 22 percent of Ghana’s GDP.

GM crops therefore appear to be a quick fix to the problem. GM crops are known to see skyrocketing yields. After introducing GM cotton to their farmers, Ghana’s neighbour, Burkina Faso, increased their cotton crop from a paltry 40,000 tons to 600,000 tons per annum (Burkina Faso is one of four African countries using commercialized GM crops, the others are Egypt, Sudan and South Africa).

To use a more local example, a study by the International Food Policy Research Institute has found that for each dollar a Ghanaian farmer invests into genetically modified cabbage (cabbage is a staple in Ghana) the farmer would receive not only the dollar but an additional 30 cents in return.

It is difficult to argue against such numbers.

Executive Secretary of the African Capacity Building Foundation, Dr Frannie Léautier, is more nuanced in her argument. In order to run a safe, successful and long term strategy of GM crop production, a requisite infrastructure must be in place.

“[The country must] have the capacity for biosafety, have capacity to run experiments to test them and capacity to pilot to scale and those that have these and more can be considered ready for GMOs.”

The question remains whether or not Ghana can build a sufficient capacity and research infrastructure to maintain high GM crop yields.

Opponents to GM crops are fighting mighty forces. Sub-Saharan Africa is sitting on an enormous market, 33 million smallholders are producing 90 percent of agricultural output. Agribusiness is aware of the potential, foreign direct investment into the agricultural sector has more than quadrupled in the past decade alone, totaling $45 billion in 2010.

With such a high degree of investment from abroad, it will be difficult to avoid the temptation of planting GM seeds.

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