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GM Foods: Will Parliament Yield to US Pressure?
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Opinions of Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Columnist: Nyarko, William

GM Foods: Will Parliament Yield to US Pressure?

Special Report by William Nyarko, Washington D.C, USA

Ghana’s Parliament and the US Congress are gearing up to pass bills that would introduce controversial foods from genetically modified organisms (GM foods) into Ghana’s food chain. GM foods, derived when genes from, for example, cows are inserted into corn to either increase yield or make them resistant to pests or weeds, have been dogged by controversies over their potential impact on human health, environment, intellectual property rights, and food security.

Ghana’s draft bill – the Biosafety Act will authorize the deployment of GM foods and will be the second GM foods- related bill that Parliament will pass after it had earlier passed the Legislative Instrument on Biosafety (LI 1887) which along with other existing legislation could be used to start field trials of GM crops in Ghana.

The US bill – the Global Food Security Act (SB 384) will amend the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and provide the resources - a whopping $7.7billion - to support research into GM foods and biotechnology in Ghana and other developing countries, a move which analysts from Food First - Annie Shattuck and Eric Holt-Giménez - say would make GM foods a condition for US agricultural assistance and increase markets for US agribusiness. The bill before the US Congress passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee March 31, 2009, despite protests from anti-GM food campaigners. Monsanto, Inc., a leading US producer of GM crops and biotechnology spent $2, 094,000 to lobby Congress to pass this, and other related bills, according to a lobbying report Monsanto filed to comply with the Lobbying Disclosure Act (1995). The United States Agency for International Development (USAID-Ghana) will be responsible for implementing this new US policy in Ghana if the US bill passes. USAID –Ghana Mission Director, Robert Hellyer, did not return a call for comments on June 22, 2009.

A key controversy which critics raise to ding GM foods is the potential impact on human health, an issue which was echoed by Ms. Cheryl Agyepong, programme officer in charge of GM Foods at the Friends of the Earth - Ghana (FoE), a non-governmental organization that is opposed to the introduction of GM foods in Ghana. In response to questions posed by this reporter, Ms. Agyepong cited a number of studies, some conducted by manufacturers of GM crops which she alleged had been suppressed by them, which showed that GM foods are unsafe for human consumption. She also quoted several reports by the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), [an NGO made up of scientists known for their opposition to GM foods] among them a report about how villagers in Southern Philippines suffered mysterious illnesses when another GM maize came into flower in a nearby field two years in a row. “Antibodies to the BT protein inserted into the GM maize were found in the villagers.”

But not everyone is convinced that the threats are real. While conceding that the concerns raised by critics of GM foods should cause Ghanaians to take a precautionary approach, Prof. Walter S. Alhassan, a supporter of GM foods and biotechnology, and a consultant to the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), an NGO, said that “there is no scientific evidence after 13 years of commercial GM crop production globally that GM crops pose specific risks to the environment and human health… The strict regulatory regime accompanying GM crop production makes these even safer than conventional crops.” As the claims and counter claims about the impact of GM foods on human health continued, this reporter asked Dr. A.B. Salifu, Director-General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to put the issue to rest but he declined to give a categorical answer saying “The CSIR being a public institution cannot have a position [on the hazards GM foods pose to human health] per se, but can however advice government as part of its policy mandate.” He, however, indicated that the CSIR would trigger a series of national awareness campaigns on biotechnology and particularly GM crops towards arriving at a national consensus on deployment.

As Parliament mulls over passing the draft Biosafety Bill, there are fears that some imported products made from GM crops, including rice, soya oil, and tinned tomatoes are already on the Ghanaian market. According to Ms. Agyepong, a GM contaminated long grain rice - LLRice 601, imported from the US was found on the Ghanaian market in 2006. This rice, produced by Bayer, had been found by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to have contaminated rice meant for export. She said alarmed at the information, the FoE collected samples of the contaminated rice in Ghana and other West African countries and sent it over to an independent lab in the US: “On Friday 27th November 2006, FoE-Ghana confirmed the existence of LLRice 601 contamination in six different brands of American long grain rice found in Ghana as revealed by the laboratory results.”

GM foods watchers say Ghana could consider a number of options to deal with GM foods. One option is to delay the passage of the Biosafety Bill and continue field testing of GM crops to verify the authenticity of the claims and counter claims of the impact of GM foods on human health. Another option is to place a moratorium on the release of GM foods for about five or 10 years or accept or reject it altogether. Either way, it seems that supporters of GM foods, including heavy weight organizations like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Monsanto, Inc, and USAID will continue to push for the adoption of GM foods in Ghana and developing countries. (Next: Should GM foods be labeled? Do GM crops produce higher yields than conventional crops? How will GM foods affect the intellectual property rights of farmers?)

Author’s email: wnyarko@gmu.edu

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