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07.09.2005 Feature Article

Stop Importation of GM Foods- Rejoinder

Stop Importation of GM Foods- Rejoinder
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In the global view Africa is written off as no significant other than as a secondary marketplace for goods manufactured in the industrial zones in Europe, America, and Asia and ideas formulated in elsewhere. This global view of Africa resonates not only with the policies of African countries, but also the personal behaviour of individual Africans, continental or diaspora. Writing in the 1930's in America, Carter Woodson, in his book The Mis-education of the Negro, made the following poignant observation:

In chameleon-like fashion the Negro has taken up almost everything religious which has come along instead of thinking for himself. The English split off from the Catholics because Henry VIII had difficulty in getting sanction from the Church to satisfy his lust for amorous women, and the Negro went with this ilk saying “God save the king”. Others later said the thing necessary is baptism by immersion; and the Negroes joined them as Baptists. Another circle of promoters next said we must have a new method of doing things and we shall call ourselves Methodists; and the Negroes, then embraced that faith.

Though in the above quote Carter Woodson used religion to illustrate the behaviour of people of African descent, the theory can be applied to other areas of social life as well.

In recent years Chiinweizu, an African political and social critic, has written critically on the readiness of African elite and leaders to accept any ideas coming from the Western world. He suggested that African elite and leaders should accept ideas stemming from outside with healthy skepticism and suspicion. Such a philosophical stance would allow Africans to subject any outside ideas to critical scrutiny and evaluation in order to avoid some of the grave mistakes made in the past. Accordingly, I applaud the decision of Ghana Food and Agriculture minister, Mr. Ernest Debrah to ban the importation of all GM foods. However, the minister's decision does not please Mr. Abrokwaa, who in his article published Saturday, August 20, 2005, characterized the minister's decision as a great disappointment for the advancement of agricultural science in Ghana. In that article, Mr. Abrokwaa did not explicitly spell out the benefits of GM technology, but the article seems to infer that GM technology is a panacea for Ghana's diminishing forest resources, the spreading desertification, perennial drought and food shortages. It should be noted, however, that areas that are facing threats of desertification in Ghana experienced a heavy overuse of chemical fertilizers in the 1970's for cultivation of maize and vegetables. These chemical fertilizers were imported from Europe and America in accordance with foreign experts' advice that they would increase agricultural yield, particularly maize which constituted a substantial portion of Ghanaian diet. Whether these chemical fertilizers increased agricultural output and decreased hunger or not these are highly debatable issues. The point I want to make is that in the long-term the continued use of chemical fertilizers ultimately destroys the fertility of soils, in that the chemical fertilizers kill essential microorganisms in the soils that are responsible for supplying nutrients to the soils. As well, some animals and plants in the ecosystem where the chemical fertilizers are applied either die or undergo a significant mutation in their genome.

It is often trumpeted that GM technology will increase food production and ensure food security and provide a lasting solution to hunger in Africa. What these prophets of GM technology fail to acknowledge is that production is not the only factor that affects hunger; indeed factors such as personal/household income, land rights and access, distribution patterns, and government policies equally affect hunger and food security. To solve the problem of hunger Ghana or Africa, African governments need more than just GM technology. African countries need to formulate comprehensively effective agricultural policies rather than focusing narrowly on the use of GM technology, a god that some African intellectuals, political leaders, and media commentators are now touting as the real Messiah of African agricultural problems.

Contrary to Mr. Abrokwaa's assertion, the ability of Western countries to produce more food than they need for consumption has nothing to do with GM technology. In fact, Western countries were net exporters of food long before biotechnology or GM technology was invented. Mr. Abrokwaa also argues that Ghana would lag behind in agricultural food technology if it refuses to embrace the GM technology. Can he equally say the same thing about the European Union (EU) that has banned GM technology? Only recently that the EU has indicated that it is considering a legislation that would allow GM food into Europe provided they are properly labeled. According to the EU environment commissioner, Margaret Wallstrom,” the people of Europe want to be fully informed about the use of GM foods, feeds and agricultural production. It is our responsibility as policy-makers to show strong political leadership and do what is necessary to ensure a high level of environmental protection as well as safety and consumer choice”. Though Ghana minister of Food and Agriculture did not give the reasons for banning the importation of GM foods, the ban would allow Ghanaian political leaders and our small scientific community to study the GM food technology and formulate an appropriate policy. This is more sensible an approach than just jumping on the bandwagon of GM technology.

Perhaps Mr. Abrokwaa is not aware that in spite of the severe food shortages in some of the Southern African countries, their governments have not simply accepted the GM food technology. Instead, they have developed their policies on the issue. For example, Zambia, Namibia, Lesotho, and Zimbabwe have stated as part of their policy on GM technology that they will only accept GM corn exclusively in powdered form. This will prevent the GM corn from mixing with traditional corn varieties. The governments of these countries also intend to mount an extensive public education campaign to educate their population about the GM food technology. So these countries are not merely embracing GM technology with the object of finding solutions to any problems that may arise with the application of the technology in future. That would have been a dangerous approach, because some of the environmental problems that may arise with the use of the GM technology could have catastrophic consequences.

David Suzuki, a high-profile Canadian geneticist, has stated that GM technology is an experimental science and warned Canadian organic farmers not to accept that technology hastily. The reasons for this caution are two folds. First, as an experimental science the impact of GM technology on human environment and human health cannot, at the moment, be estimated with any reasonable degree of accuracy. This stems from the availability of a few studies on the environmental and human health effects of the GM technology. Recently, the BBC reported the results of the fourth and final test of a GM crop grown under UK farm conditions. The report has revealed the detrimental effects that the novel plant can have on wild life. The tests showed that the plant reduced drastically the surrounding weeds and seeds available to some insects and birds in that ecosystem. However, the scientists can not predict how long these effects would last. In another experiment involving a GM crop reported by the British Guardian on July 25, 2005, it indicated that a related weed had picked up herbicide resistance as a result of cross-fertilization with a GM oil seed rape. This is something that scientists have repeatedly said it is impossible to occur. This discovery indicates the high probability that herbicide-resistant super-weeds could develop in the British country side if GM crops were grown commercially. In Canada, reports show that farmers who had encountered super-weeds while cultivating GM crops have been compelled to spray them with heavy chemicals in their determined effort to get rid of them.

Second, the research results of many GM foods have been kept secret from the public. And even in some cases corporate sponsors of the GM crops have rejected the use of conventional scientific canons to determine their environmental and health impacts. Why? For example, the British-based news source the independent revealed a secret research done by GM food giant Monsano. The research compared the biological effects of eating GM corn versus naturally grown corn rats. According to the report rats that fed on the GM corn developed smaller kidneys and variations in composition of their blood. This suggests that human health could also be affected by eating such food. However, no health problems were seen in rats that fed on the non-GM food. In fact, GM foods are more likely to have a number of unpredictable side-effects but the statistical significance of these side effects may be disputable among scientists. This tells it loudly that science is not an objective field of study and that scientists' values, culture, and worldview shape the process of their investigation or research. And the results they report.

GM crops are those engineered by the insertion of genes into them. The gene may come human, another plant or even a virus or bacterium. This process of gene insertion may result in tens of thousands of mutations throughout the genome This is because the insertion has a high possibility of changing the amount of protein that natural genes produce and can even destroy the genes altogether. The protein created by the inserted gene may also create allergies or toxins. So once the gene is inserted what happens in the genome is anybody's guess. Scientists cannot guarantee anything in this regard, nor can they predict how many mutations can occur in the genome.

In Ghana where well-organized and accessible health services are non-existent, it is dangerous to simply allow the importation of GM foods without any sort of protective safeguards in place. How would we deal with any health effects from the consumption of GM foods? In addition, a vast majority of our farmers are illiterates and most would attempt to sow the seed of GM food in grain form. And the consequences to the environment would be unpredictable should that happened. As a matter of fact, Ghana cannot be a mere cheer-leader of GM technology, a technology still in its experimental phase. Instead, the government should exercise a critical political leadership by formulating an appropriate policy on the use of that technology in Ghana. It should always be noted that GM food technology is not a simple technical issue that should be left out to the scientists and technologists to decide its suitability; it is also a social, political and ethical issue. All these issues are interwoven and should all be considered in making a policy on the use of the GM technology. Fredua-Kwarteng, OISE/University of Toronto, Ontario. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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