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15 October 2012 | Sci/Environment

WEST AFRICAN SCIENTISTS REACH CONSENSUS ON GM CASSAVA

Samuel Hinneh

Genetic Modified (GM) cassava which withstands disease and pest resistance would raise the production of cassava to benefit the health of the West African population, scientists have agreed, in a new report.

GM cassava has the potential in solving nutritional problems such as iron, zinc, vitamin A, and protein deficiencies.

Information from the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that more than 800 million people suffer from micronutrient malnutrition-vitamins and minerals in developing countries with Africa accounting for almost 50% of the children who are clinically or sub-clinically deficient in vitamin A, particularly under five years of age.

This deficiency causes (preventable) blindness in children and confers an increased risk of infection due to immune system impairment. Iron deficiency, which causes anaemia, is also a problem.

According to the United Nations, the prevalence of anaemia in preschool children ranges from 42% to 53% in East and West Africa, respectively.

Cassava, currently plagued by cassava mosaic diseases (CMD) - a viral attacking the product is one of the major sources of farm income and is an important food security crop for the people of Africa. It is the third African major staple food crop after maize and rice, and contributes about 40% of the food calories consumed in tropical Africa.

The report developed by using semi-structured interviews in Ghana and Nigeria found that scientists expressed little or no concern about health risks of GM cassava, but were concerned consumers may express such concerns given limited understanding of GM technology.

The scientists were wary of long-term effects of GM cassava on the environment and lack of a regulatory framework to facilitate the adoption of GM cassava.

The paper examined the perspectives of scientists, on the potential adoption of GM cassava for improving health and food security in Africa as well as issues around the regulatory system and transfer and acceptance of GM cassava among scientists.

Richard Akromah who took part in the research says GM technology is just beginning in Africa and there is little knowledge concerning the pros and cons of the technology.

“I would say it is the fear of the unknown because the technology is new and in some countries the capacity to understand the technology and also to appreciate it benefits and as well as to understand its dangers have not been well elucidated that is why there is a controversy'', said Ankromah, the Dean, Faculty of Agriculture of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in an interview.

The United Nations Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety issues concerning GM outlined precautionary measures that employ countries to undertake in-depth testing based on sound understanding on scientific principles governing modified organisms, environmental impact assessment, health and safety risks as well as benefits and economic benefits before adopting the technology.

Only South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt on the African continent have adopted some GM crops such as maize, cotton, however, Ghana is preparing to do confining field trials on GM crops.

“The other countries are following the precautionary principles of UN and that is to say to do national assessment and people are building capacity towards these, you will notice that it only in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda are the countries that are moving towards confining field trials and have set up these.

“The Crop Research Institute is building the facility, likewise the Savannah Agriculture Research Institute in Ghana to do confining field trial to deploy some GM crops in the future under containment'', said Akromah.

He said there is lack of awareness among the general public of the technology due to the media hyped when it comes to GM.

“Some NGOs such as Friends of Earth and opponents of the technology are all always giving one side (disadvantages) of the story without balancing it with the other side (advantages). When we talk about the GM cassava we are saying cassava that is fortified with nutrients and its benefits at the same time we should also be conscious that for it to be deployed in farmers field it has to be assessed for environmental consequences in the long term and not just one year's trials for it to be assessed on health and safety issues'', he said.

He said confined facilities, financial support, scientific capacity limited in some countries and unknown price of the technology are some of the limited facilities confronting the technology.

There are many published information coming from NGOs such as Friends of The Earth which are exaggerate in the attempt to discourage the public from accepting the technology without going to the scientific basis of the technology.

On the future of the technology in Africa, he says over the years people are becoming more enlighten and knowledgeable about the technology and how it works.

“The other option is to stay with conventional bred varieties of crops but support it with irrigation to escape rain fed agriculture, support it with in-built resistance in crops and also improve agricultural practices.

“Why the technology may gain grounds is that people are also worried about the environmental impacts of agro chemicals and therefore may opt for in-built resistance genetically modified in-built resistance in crops so that we will not use agricultural chemicals in production'', he said.

At the moment there are other genetically modified crops such as cotton which has disease resistance, maize which has insect resistance, the golden rice which has vitamin A.

Ankromah says African countries need to build national capacity of scientists to understand the technology, as well as build capacity to do in-country testing of GM to introduce those genes into locally adapted crop lands and educate the general public to understand the technology.

Walter S. Alhassan Coordinator, Project on Strengthening Capacity for Safe Biotechnology Management in sub-Sahara Africa (SABIMA) in an interview stated that scientists should engage with the farmers, processors and consumers in the design and execution of GM cassava research to avoid rejections of products developed.

“It would seem that most of the GM cassava researches are currently at proof of concept stage and that the foreign varieties in use for initial studies will confirm the genes to be transferred (introgressed) into the favoured local varieties'', he said.

Alhassan however, disagrees with the title 'Developing GM super cassava for improved health and food security: future challenges in Africa' citing It could cause anxiety and fear in the uninformed and focuses attention on the process rather that the product.

The Lead author, Ademola A Adenle of the United Nations University-Institute of Advanced Studies says given the high level of poverty, malnutrition, hunger, food security problems, and low agricultural productivity in Africa, advanced technology like GM technology has the potential to offer solutions to some of these problems.

However, the controversy over the use of GM technology remains one of the biggest threats in adopting this new technology.

He stated that the current regulatory approaches of the United States of America (USA) and the European Union (EU) can play an important role over adoption of GM technology in developing countries, particularly in Africa.

“For example, the USA can allow commercial release of GMO products based upon standard tests such as allegenicity, digestivity and toxicity without any regulatory barrier, whereas in the EU, GMO products can be stopped based upon scientific uncertainty alone without any associated evidence of risks and sufficient testing according to the so called precautionary principle'', Adenle says.

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