Feature Article of Friday, 14 February 2014

Columnist: Agorsor, Yafetto, Otwe, Galyuon

Ghana’s GMO debates: beyond the sticking points (2)

Israel D. K. Agorsor, Levi Yafetto, Emmanuel P. Otwe and Isaac K. A. Galyuon
This is the continuation of the article “Ghana’s GMO debates: beyond the sticking points (1)”

3. Biosafety: Faulty Cars versus Faulty Plants
As you may have noticed from the discussions in the first part of this article, one of the issues central to the GMO debates is biosafety. How do we ensure that when plant genetic engineers develop GM crops in order to confer on them “desired traits”, these crops deliver the exact results the scientists intended them to? How do we ensure that the genes that have been introduced into these plants in order to modify their genome do not end up producing proteins that are toxic to humans and animals who may consume them?

In addressing the above issue, we present an analogous scenario: we have been confronted with the fact that when mechanical engineers produce mechanical systems that have turned out to be faulty, all they have to do is to issue recall orders to get those machines withdrawn from the market in order for the faults to be fixed, if possible. In this regard, you may recall that the Automobile manufacturing giant Toyota has had to recall some batches of some of its vehicles in recent years when it was detected that there were issues with their airbags. So the question is asked: what will plant genetic engineers do after they have produced GM crops, and, after releasing them into the environment, found out in the long run that they are not producing exactly what they intended them to produce?

The above question is asked to proponents of ‘GM technology’ against the backdrop that unlike mechanical systems, plants have the potential to cross-pollinate related species in their environment, and so when they have been found to be “faulty” after genetic engineering, the issue of recalling them from the environment may be out of the question, because they may already have passed on those genes producing the toxic proteins to their relatives through cross-pollination. If the hybrid plants resulting from this cross-pollination are fertile, they may be able to pass on those genes to natural plant populations.

Does this question deliver the biggest blow to proponents of ‘GM technology’? It may seem so upon cursory analysis. However, there is this view that the assumption underlying “the faulty plant scenario” may be grossly exaggerated. The faulty plant scenarios rely on many assumptions that must be fulfilled, or that must exist in nature, for the theoretical disastrous effects of a faulty (GM) plant to occur. However, many of these assumptions are usually largely theoretical, and may never occur. Besides, it is argued that exchange of genetic material between different species is a phenomenon that already occurs in nature. Thus, if GM crops were to transfer so-called “bad genes” to other species in their environment at all, it should not constitute “a new threat”, because this must be happening in nature already. For instance, some species of bacteria transfer the gene(s) that make(s) them resistant to antibiotics to non-resistant species in a process known as horizontal gene transfer.
Perhaps it is important we point out that if there ever is any form of science, which is so tightly regulated, in our opinion, it must be genetic engineering and biotechnology. Indeed, the very first debates on biosafety of genetic engineering occurred nearly four decades ago. These debates occurred among experts from the scientific, philosophical, legal and ethical societies in the USA, and ushered in the dawn of biosafety; that is, efforts to contain potential hazards associated with biotechnology. Clearly, the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA in February 1975 was one of the most outstanding early efforts aimed at developing biosafety guidelines. The guidelines from these debates are the precursors of what are now known as “the biosafety protocols”.
Thus, in countries where GM agriculture is done, there are usually strict guidelines governing the development and release of GMOs into the environment. One of the widely used assessment criteria is the substantial equivalence concept. This concept dictates that assessment of a novel food or food product, particularly those derived from GMOs, must demonstrate that the food or food product is as safe as its non-GMO or traditional counterpart. These guidelines are enforced by national biosafety committees, or similar ones, and are aimed at preventing “the faulty plant scenario” presented above from occurring, even though some critics have questioned the adequacy of these guidelines, and the safety assessment protocols as applied to GMOs.
Meanwhile, we would like to indicate that that the scientists themselves have taken the steps to addressing the biosafety concerns through the institution of the biosafety protocols must not be seen as an admission of guilt, of the fact that the science is indeed very risky. Instead, these efforts should be seen as an attempt to allay the fears of the public, to win over their confidence in the technology. Indeed steps are taken in all scientific practices to minimize risks associated with scientific protocols. So at this point, while it is reassuring that the Government of Ghana intends to transform its Biosafety Committee into a National Biosafety Authority (NBA), a lot of effort will be required of this institution if Ghana were to adopt GM agriculture, considering the widely-held opinion that regulatory institutions in developing countries are not always effective.

4. Beyond the row: GM Crops Next Door
We now like to lift the debates from the usual pro- and anti-GMO views to the level that recognizes that in reaching a decision in all matters that have the potential to affect the economic development of a nation, that nation must also closely watch what is happening across its borders. Now, if it is assumed that GMOs are so dangerous that Ghana must stay clear of them, the question that arises is: what do we do with the GM crops next door? Burkina Faso is one of the few African countries that have embraced plant genetic engineering in the efforts towards modernizing their agriculture, the others being Egypt, South Africa, and South Sudan, and to some extent Kenya and Uganda. One of the major GM crops cultivated in Burkina Faso is GM cotton. It is estimated that in general, GM crops would add nearly US$ 100 million to Burkina Faso’s economy annually.
The GM cotton cultivated in Burkina Faso, and other countries, is known as Bt-Cotton, because the crop has been genetically transformed with a gene from the common soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt). This gene helps the crop to produce proteins that are toxic to insect pests of cotton, making it insect pest-resistant. It is argued that cultivating insect pest-resistant cotton means reduced insecticide sprays, leading to reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases, which have been implicated in climate change, in addition to reducing respiratory problems associated with insecticide usage.
One key issue demands our attention as a country. And it is this: is it likely that even though we may be averse to GMOs, GM cotton from Burkina Faso may find its way onto Ghanaian soil, particularly, to Northern Ghana where cotton cultivation is practised? This question is relevant because of the proximity of Northern Ghana to Burkina Faso. To understand this very well, one has to appreciate the socio-economic dynamics at our border posts, where it has been suggested that citizens of one country may sleep on one side of the border and eat or bath on the other side. This kind of activity may easily facilitate the exchange of gifts, including plant materials (e.g. seeds) among farmers from both sides of the border. Perhaps, we are tempted to also consider the porosity of our border posts where quarantine services may not be as effective as they ought to be, and how this may facilitate the above-described scenario. Moreover, it is known that wind facilitates the transportation of propagules across great distances. The end result is that Burkina Faso’s GM crops may end up on Ghanaian farms without us knowing.

At this point, we reason that sheer ambivalence towards GMO issues does not in the least constitute an effort towards staying clear of GMOs if we are to believe that genetic engineering has a hidden agenda, which is to sow “the seeds of self-destruction”. Rather, we think that what is required of us is to be proactive in confronting the issues. In this regard, we are of the view that efforts by the Government of Ghana to set up a National Biosafety Authority (NBA) is a step in the right direction, and should not only be seen by opponents of GMOs as an attempt to force GMOs down Ghanaian throats. The NBA’s mandate, as specified in the Biosafety Act, is an important one. It involves monitoring the Ghanaian landscape to verify and regulate all activities pertaining to GMOs, including finding out whether GMOs being cultivated elsewhere which have not been approved by the government have crossed our borders or not. We call attention to reports that some GM crop-producing countries have previously managed to export surpluses of their produce to neighbouring non-GM crop-producing countries, totally taking those countries unawares. Thus, the effects of globalization dictate that nations must always choose proactiveness over ambivalence in dealing with topical global issues that impact their well-being.

5. Terminator Technology, “Suicide Seeds”, and Ownership of GMOs
A key apprehension surrounds GMOs. It is about who owns GMOs. This concern naturally flows from the observation that the multinational seed corporations leading the development of GMOs have Intellectual Property Rights over some aspects of the technology. Therefore, the question has been asked whether there is any chance that in the future, when many nations have come to adopt GMOs as food and food products, these multinationals may, for some reason, withhold supply of planting materials and thereby defeating the food security arguments that have been pushed in favour of GMOs? Put differently, the GMO debates have their own conspiracy theories.

Perhaps what has made the “ownership arguments” very relevant is the realization in the 1990s that a number of the seed companies own a technology known as “terminator technology”, more appropriately called “gene use restriction technology”. This technology was first developed by the US Department of Agriculture in collaboration with the Delta and Pine Land Company, a company which has since been bought by biotechnology giant Monsanto. Later, other terminator-type technologies were developed by other seed/agro-chemical industries. The aim was to cause GM crops equipped with the technology to produce sterile seeds towards the end of their life cycle. It is claimed this was to ensure that crops equipped with the terminator technology would be unable to transfer their transgene(s) to wild relatives through pollination. But it is also alleged that the real aim was that saved seeds could not be grown in subsequent growing seasons, so that farmers would be forced to buy new seeds each growing season. This way, the biotechnology companies can recoup their investment in the development of GM crops. Whatever it is, criticism of this technology centred on the fact that farmers would be unable to select and save the best seeds from their produce for future cropping seasons, making them dependent on multinational business groups for their future planting materials.

Although, the terminator technology has never been commercialized, the anticipation that it could be employed in the future led to massive protests against it by peasant farmers in India, Latin America and South-East Asia in the 1990s. Some GM cotton fields in India were burnt down amid the protests. In 2000, under the auspices of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, there was an international moratorium on the use of the technology, which 193 countries signed up to. This moratorium was further strengthened in 2006.

However, reports emerging from Brazil suggest the Brazilian government has been contemplating giving landowning groups the permission to plant GM medicinal plants, and GM eucalyptus trees that provide pulp for paper mills, which plants will be equipped with the terminator technology. The landowning groups reportedly argue that the use of the technology will be restricted to non-food crops, and that equipping these plants with the terminator technology will ensure the reduction of the transfer of the GM traits to their wild relatives. However, environmentalists fear if this is allowed, it could lead to a systematic breakdown of the-193-nation-backed international moratorium. Other nations may follow suit, allowing the use of the technology in food crops too, which may lead to the impoverishment of smallholder farmers in developing countries where GM agriculture is practised, as they may not be able to afford the cost of new planting materials each growing season. This would also have food security implications for many nations.

Without doubt, the above scenario looks scary. However, if the government and citizens of a nation decide that they would go along with genetic engineering and GMOs, then it is possible for the scientists of these nations to initiate their own processes towards developing GMOs. With this, they would not have to necessarily rely on multinational business groups in the GMO business for their food and feed needs. Therefore, one area we would support the opponents of GM food is stewardship of the technology adapted for our own needs and use. The Government must equip scientists in order to adopt the technology for national benefit.

About the authors: Israel D. K. Agorsor holds an MSc degree in Plant Biotechnology (specializing in Molecular Plant Breeding and Pathology) from Wageningen University, The Netherlands; Levi Yafetto holds a PhD in Mycology from Miami University, USA, and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University, USA; Emmanuel P. Otwe holds a PhD in Plant Science from Leicester University, UK; and Isaac K. A. Galyuon is a PhD in Plant Physiology from Aberystwyth University, UK. All four authors work at the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, School of Biological Sciences, University of Cape Coast, Ghana. *Contact e-mail address: [email protected]
NB: The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the institution(s) to which the authors are affiliated.