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10.03.2009 Feature Article

Re: Ghana to Undertake Field Trial on GM Crops (GMCs)

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Although I have never written or ever thought of posting an article on this web site, I strongly believe that it is ones moral obligation to take a bite off this touchy topic laden with apprehensions and emotions. An article was posted on February 27, 2009 based on an announcement made by Prof. Walter Alhassan on the above subject matter. After reading a couple of comments in response to the field trial program on Genetically Modified Crops (GMCs), it has become clear that most of the comments emanate from basic misunderstanding or the lack thereof of this revolutionary technology called Biotechnology/Genetic Engineering. Tragically, the hear-say syndrome has dangerously interwoven with our fabrics of apprehension to the extent, that if conscious efforts are not made, we will be fixated on using 15th century tools to solve 21st century problems. Anyhow, thanks to the few comrades who argued in support of GMCs!

Africa/Ghana is always falling behind the rest of the world in all fields of technological advancement due to factors such as politics, lack of financial and human resources, and lack of education/technical know-how. However, the effects of our penchant for resisting change cannot be underestimated in the quest for catching up with the rest of the world, technologically. Change always precedes development and no development ever occurred without changing the status quo. Sorry for digressing a little bit from GMCs.

As indicated earlier, most of the contributors' comments in response to the topic under discussion reveal a monstrous task ahead of the likes of Prof. Alhassan and Marian Quain (I know she is doing a wonderful job in this field) to educate the public if this relatively new technology is to survive the onslaught of ignoramus. In a similar vein, I also read a scientifically depressing argument advanced by one Mr. Kwaku Adu-Gyamfi against GMCs in October 2008. The author's argument was scientifically naïve, flawed, and pathetic to the extent that I wondered if he decided to write just for the sake of it without any basic research on the subject matter. Ironically, Mr. Adu-Gyamfi is the founder of a Youth Empowerment EDUCATIONAL Foundation. It is rather scary and unfortunate that the public is being held to ransom with speculative fear mongering by those who lack the basic scientific understanding of such an important subject of national proportion.

Ever since the first GMO was created, approximately 30 years ago, there has not been any empirical evidence of reported adverse effects on humans, livestock or the environment (I stand to be corrected, though). Thus, if GMCs will kill me, probably, after 100 years, then I would like to eat more GMCs. After all, according the World Health Organization 6,000,000 children under the age of 5 will die each year out of hunger! Another 3,000,000 will die each year from malaria. And 500,000 will go blind from clinical vitamin A deficiency. We can go on and on and on. The potential of reducing this staggering and frightening statistics lies in the very technology we are bent on destroying due to lack of public education. In order to increase food production to sustain the exploding world population, tones of fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides among others, are used each year with detrimental consequences on the quality of our water bodies. Instead of dosing the environment with tones of insecticides why not plant BT corn? And by the way, are the prophets of doom aware that most of the clothes we wear today come from GM cotton? Should we then advocate for walking naked on our streets? What about the frozen chicken, beef, turkey, and the pig feet we import from the western world? What do they feed them with? Let us accept it, my fellow countrymen; GMCs are here to stay because they will provide the solutions to our future food security, industry, and 21st century medicine.

Genetic Engineering/Biotechnology, which gave birth to GM crops, has been with us since the existence of Homo habilis and through the period of Neanderthals. Nature is continuously engineering all living organisms through genetic mutations, gene shuffling, and the transfer or exchange of genetic materials (among viruses and bacteria) within and between species. However, the natural processes of genetic engineering may take several years before a desirable character may become established or selected. The figure below explains this argument better in a pictorial form. I believe our forefathers even appreciated the importance of genetic engineering by preserving crops with desirable phenotypic traits for subsequent planting seasons.

Fig.1 Different stages of corn domestication. Fig.1 Different stages of corn domestication.
Per the arguments of some of the contributors and those who hold similar views against GM crops, we should be depending on the primitive teosinte's few fruit cases (Fig.1A) instead of the modern corn's rows of exposed kernels (Fig.1C) we gleefully enjoy today. It is noteworthy that the transition between Fig.1A and C took about 6,300 years. It took cassava up to 7000 years to reach the present form, while it took rice up to 9000 years to reach the form we consume today (Gepts, 2003). In essence, this is exactly what the revolutionary technology of genetic engineering has sought to improve; reducing the number of years it had taken Fig. 1A to reach Fig.1C and also to increase the number of rows and the size of kernels on the cob in Fig.1C. Supposing we were still depending on Fig.1A as a food source, how many acres of land and how much labor will it require to feed even one of the smallest regions in Ghana? Furthermore, the traditional/conventional method of crop breeding also transfers undesirable traits that the breeder has absolutely no control over. However, genetic engineering targets only a specific gene that codes for a specific trait of interest for the benefit of human kind.

Post-harvest loss accounts for between 15 and 30% of food crops produced in Ghana according to FAO. Tomato farmers in the Northern and Brong Ahafo Regions continue to loose a big chunk of their harvest due to lack of storage facilities. Poor road networks and transportation systems also hamper a speedy carting of the produce from the hinterlands to the cities. As a result farmers painfully watch their labor and toil rot right before their tearful eyes. And so the question is; what harm will it cause to transform tomatoes with a gene that codes for a thicker skin or remove the gene that codes for rot enzymes, to prolong the shelf life from a week to, say, 4 weeks? Will this be too dangerous for field trial in Ghana? What about the war against malaria? Supposing the gene that codes for an anti-malaria protein in Artemisia annua was isolated and successfully expressed in groundnut, can't we just chew this as “nkatie burger” or “azi totoe” to save millions of lives in Ghana/Africa? If we demonize GM crops so much to the point of absurdity, how can we take advantage of the technology for our benefit in terms of research? And why should we demonize bananas, which contain polio vaccines that can easily be available to children at a cheaper cost to fight the polio scourge? Have we ever paused to answer why we spray a corn field that has other monocotyledonous weeds with herbicides only to, selectively, have the weeds killed? Well, it is because the resistant to the herbicides is conferred onto the corn by an inserted foreign gene. We may be interested to know that about 89% of soybeans in the UK contain a foreign gene that is resistant to herbicides.

Whether it is in the field of agriculture, medicine, automobile, textiles, energy, etc, genetic engineering has come to stay and it holds the key to the challenges of the 21st century. If we fail to shelve this level of resistance to technological changes, we will always be left trailing the rest of the world. It is important, therefore, for the government machinery to fire on all cylinders in educating the public, with sound scientific arguments simplified in the lay-man's language about the relevance of GM crops. Otherwise the public will be polluted with toxic arguments from those who do not fully grasp the understanding of the technology. Setting up of presidential or parliamentary committees, attending oversea workshops, organizing conferences at Tulip Hotel and the likes wouldn't help the ordinary folks to comprehend the necessity of GMCs. Additionally, the regulatory agencies should be armed to the teeth in ensuring that the stringent regulations that govern the release of GMCs onto the market are strictly adhered to. These will surely increase the acceptance and the trust of the public in GMCs to an undisputable level, permanently. Genetic engineering is nature's own design that has been utilized or dare to say “exploited” to the advantage of mankind.

Let us continue the debate and public education!
Author: Benjamin S. Bey, Ph.D Candidate
Department of Environmental Health Sciences
Arnold School of Public Health, University of South Carolina

[email protected]
(Formerly of Tuskegee University Biotechnology Lab in Alabama)

Benjamin S. Bey
Benjamin S. Bey, © 2009

The author has 3 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: BenjaminSBey

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