Savelugu — A battle over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is building in Ghana after the government recently completed regulations that could allow modified cowpeas and other selected crops to be grown following confined field trials (CFT).
Civil society groups and at least one opposition party have positioned themselves to fight against the introduction of GMOs.
"The state should support sustainable farming by providing the necessary resources, infrastructure and enough technical personnel." -- Dr. Wilson Dogbe
The BT Cowpea is among three other crops - cotton, rice and sweet potatoes - which have been cleared for confined trials and evaluation. Scientists will seek to create a cowpea variety resistant to the pod borer or maruca, a species of moth that targets bean crops.
The choice of cowpeas, known elsewhere as blackeyed peas, is important because the legume plays a vital role in the nutritional needs of Ghanaians, especially those in the Northern Region. Rural families make use of the entire plant, from its leaf to the dry grain.
Ibrahim Amando, 35, a subsistence farmer at Pong-Tamale in the Savelugu district of the Northern Region of Ghana, told IPS his household depends on the crop because of its robust nature and nutritional value. He has become one of roughly 200 million people on the African continent, particularly in dry savanna areas, who cultivate and rely on the crop.
Amando complained that he spends 60 dollars to buy insecticide to spray his two-acre cowpea farm the necessary 10 times before harvest. Cymetox Super and Sumitex, the pest control products he uses, each cost six dollars for a litre.
"I spray the farm every week to reduce pests and insects, especially the maruca, and I harvest four 84-kilogramme sacks during a good season," he said.
Ghana's production of cowpeas, the second most important legume after groundnut, stands to increase by about 50 percent if the CFTs are successful. Crop losses could decrease by between 30 and 90 percent when the evaluation of pod borer-resistance cowpeas, also known as Barceló's Thurigensis (BT) cowpea, is completed in the next three years.
Dr. Ibrahim Dzido Kwasi Atokple, project coordinator of the government's CFTs, said that the project seeks to contribute to food security and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers by reducing the pod's damage, promote grain quality and reduce seasonal crop loss.
"Pod borer infestation is a major constraint to cowpea production in Africa," Atokple told IPS.
"In the absence of resistance genes in the cowpea germplasm, a new [biotechnological] innovation has identified a resistance gene from a bacteria species [Bacillus thuringensis]. This has been transferred into the local cowpea variety to kill the pod borer and also reduce the harmful effect of many insecticide sprays the farmers are exposed to."
Atokple said the innovation was developed and evaluated through a joint public-private partnership with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia, the African Agriculture Technology Foundation (AATF) in Kenya and the Savanna Agricultural Research Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Ghana, as well as other institutions in Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
"From the trial the identified pod borer-resistant cowpea lines will be crossed with the commercial cowpea varieties in Ghana, such as Apagbala, Songotra, Padituya and given to farmers," he said.
Atokple is convinced that the national annual production of cowpea - today around 205,000 metric tonnes - could be increased by 30 percent with a new GMO crop.
Dr. Prince Addae, project manager of AATF, said fears surrounding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) such as the pod borer-resistant cowpea project should be dispelled, because research suggests GMO-related products convey no ill side effects.
"I think some people do not understand the issue of GMO very well and this is because it is just an innovation to address challenges. There are many countries that had adopted and are using GMO foods," Addae told IPS.
The plant, said Adde, would continue to be a major staple crop among Ghanaians who cannot afford to buy meat and fish.
Eric Amaning Okoree, secretary of the National Bio-Safety Committee and a deputy director of environment at the Ministry of Environment Science and Technology, said GMO technology was important to stay apace with demographic growth and counteract some effects of climate change, such as lower rainfall.
Addae said a technical advisory committee has been formed to conduct risk assessment into all GMO applications in the country.
But doubts remain.
Ali-Masmadi Jehu-Appiah, chairperson of Food Sovereignty Ghana, a civil society organisation, has called on the government to place an immediate moratorium on the cultivation, importation and consumption of genetically modified foods.
"We are making this appeal as a Ghanaian grassroots food advocacy movement, after credible reports of the start of cultivation of GM seeds in the country. Our group calls for the need for Ghanaians to clearly understand the full implications associated with the cultivation of genetically modified foods before embracing the technology," he said.
"If [we] Africans fail to get our act together, GM patent domination of our agriculture could be far worse than the combined effects of apartheid, colonialism and slavery. Remember the words of [U.S. Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger, 'Food is a weapon'."
The Convention People's Party (CPP), a smaller opposition party, has also spoken out publically against the GMO initiative.
"We are waiting some way, somehow to become guinea pigs in the hands of some scientific experimentation by people elsewhere before we think, before we come together," said Ernesto Yeboah, a member of the party's anti-GMO campaign.
He says research in the U.S., EU and other advanced countries has linked GMOs to sterility, cancer and birth defects.
Yeboah claims GMOs have wreaked havoc in countries like India, where he cites estimates of 125,000 suicides among rural farmers who in recent years allegedly were overcome by insurmountable debt from the purchase of expensive GMO seeds and the promise of bountiful crops.
Dr. Wilson Dogbe, a research scientist at the Savannah Agriculture Research Institute of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, told IPS that Ghana does not need to start cultivating GMOs, because the population can feed itself by exploring other agricultural opportunities.
"There are some fundamental things we are not getting right as a country," he said. "The state should support sustainable farming by providing the necessary resources, infrastructure and enough technical personnel.
"For example, the issue of the current farmer-agriculture extension officers' ratio, which is currently one Agricultural Extension Officers to about 1,300 farmers, should be addressed before thinking about starting GMO," he said.