09.11.2003 Feature Article

Biotechnology: A Solution for Ending Hunger and Poverty in Ghana – A Rejoinder

Biotechnology: A Solution for Ending Hunger and Poverty in Ghana – A Rejoinder
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I read with interest the article “Biotechnology: A Solution for Ending Hunger and Poverty in Ghana” written by my good friend Albert Wireko Osei and cannot let it pass without comments. I have had several discussions with Mr. Osei on biotechnology and food security and cannot but disagree with him as I always do that biotechnology is not a solution to ending hunger and poverty in Ghana. While Mr. Osei’s point that for Ghana to launch any meaningful assault on poverty and hunger her food and agriculture policies must be integrated makes sense, I fail to see how her ratification of the Catagena Protocol can lead to such policy integration.

The Categena Protocol on Biosafety sets up a regulatory system for transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms across borders and I do not see how the transfer of controversial genetically modified (GM) foods can be a solution to hunger and poverty in Ghana. I guess Mr. Osei sees something in the Catagena Protocol that I fail to see but if history teaches us anything, it is that international protocols are meaningless and are often flouted by powerful nations. To be a bit conspiratorially minded, I see the Catagena Protocol as a document legitimizing trade in genetically modified foods to the benefit of the predominantly North American based GM industry.

The acceptance of GM foods outside of North America is still a far cry. In the past few years, the efficacy of GM foods for Africa has been a subject of intense debate after Zambia and Zimbabwe faced with famine turned down GM food aid.

There is no doubt that various aspects of modern biotechnology and GM foods will affect the direction of food sovereignty, self-sufficiency and security in Africa, if Africa were to embrace it. But there are difficulties associated with the adoption of such a technology by Africa. First of all, GM seeds which are needed for planting every season are expensive and poor African farmers cannot pay the royalties associated with them. Secondly, the cost of inputs needed for use with these seeds are high and African farmers do not have the resources to afford them. Beside the high financial costs of cultivating GM seeds, there is also the often cited point that Genetically Modified Technologies pose a danger to human health and the environment.

The GM industry, some governments, and academic scientists have touted the benefits of GM foods for agriculture, the ecosystems, and human health. These proponents of GM foods argue with passion that Genetically Modified Technologies are the only avenues open to us if we are to adequately feed a world population that is bursting at the seams. With equal passion, consumer groups, environmental activists, religious organizations, and some scientists warn of unforeseen health, environmental, and socioeconomic consequences.

The whole debate about GM foods touches on something very personal to each of us concerning what we and our children are eating. The issue that arises therefore is whether GM foods are dangerous to our environment and health? This is one crucial question that Africa and for that matter Ghana needs to answer before taking a political position on whether to embrace the GM technology or not. Though research so far is inconclusive on the health and environmental effects of Genetically Modified Technologies, genetic engineering of which GM technology is part of, is expensive, imprecise and unpredictable and would no doubt pose some problems down the road for the food sovereignty, self-sufficiency and security of Africa.

With respect to the potential health and environmental effects of GM foods and technologies, Africa needs to evoke the precautionary principle. According to this principle, when an activity raises threats of harm to the environment or human health, such an activity should be avoided even if the actual cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. The precautionary principle arises from recognition that scientific understanding of human health and the ecosystems is incomplete and uncertain. Certainly, the principle makes sense by calling on us to err on the side of safety. For now it is prudent and wise for Africa to embrace this principle and thread cautiously on the unknowns of Genetically Modified Technologies.

Finally, if it is even established that GM technology will benefit Africa, the Categena Protocol as it stands will do a poor job of getting those benefits to Africa. It does not involve the transfer of any GM technology but rather the transfer of its food products. This, in my opinion, will negatively impact on the food sovereignty, self-sufficiency and security of Africa and make the continent more dependent on technology controlled by foreign agro-based multinational companies. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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