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Opinions of Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Columnist: Amuna, Paul

The Ghana GM Food Debate: Balancing the Arguments

Part 1


This is the first of a series examining the GM Food Debate
The GM Food Debate in Ghana is slowly gathering pace however it is wholly regrettable that the majority of the discussion to date in our traditional press and social media are largely ill-informed and at times grossly misleading. Those I blame the most for this are the ‘educated’ contributors to the debate whose personal biases appear to cloud their vision, hence rather distorting the debate, confusing the public who clearly need answers to a technical subject they know very little about and are rather depending on ‘us’ to help them better understand. In this article, I seek to contribute to the debate in the hope that mine will help rather than hinder the process of educating our public on the subject. I wish to also declare from the start that I am not an advocate for GM foods and am not supported by any GM organisation or company, nor am I against it without good reason.

It is perhaps worth letting readers and the public know that GM Foods are in the world to stay (whether we choose to adopt them or not) and are already on markets in industrialised, BRICS and other developing and economically emerging markets; and already on our own markets where quite a lot of imported grain – e.g. some of the wheat, soy, sorghum, bread flour and maize products and some breakfast cereals are largely ‘non-organic’. It is also worth noting from the onset that in countries like the United States (with two regulatory bodies for GM food products) and in Europe, GM Foods are tightly regulated yet nonetheless have been accepted into the food chain following rigorous scientific review and scrutiny of the risks and benefits. The European Food Standards Authority, the body which regulates food safety within the EUs Member States (a population over 300 million) in 2008 (EFSA, 2008) did a thorough review of GM Food Safety in Humans and concluded that there was no evidence of untoward health effects from the foods that are already on the markets. There are those who are vehemently opposed to GM Foods and organisations dedicated to that cause in Europe, America and elsewhere and although they make their voices heard, the fact is, the majority of people in the industrialised countries of Europe, America, Australasia and elsewhere continue to consume GM foods, and have done so for decades now.

To put this mater into the African context, a nutrition landscape analysis conducted by the UN’s Scientific Committee on Nutrition (UN/SCN) in 2009 (WHO/SCN News,37, 2009; The Lancet, 2010) found that of the 36 High burden countries for nutrition and food insecurity the majority of whom are in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana included), very few demonstrated any readiness in nutrition governance, leadership and the capacity to solve their food security and nutrition problems. Furthermore we are all witnesses to the fact that many of these same high burden countries with nutritional problems are failing to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, particularly MDG 1 which seeks to ERADICATE chronic hunger among the vulnerable, the majority of whom are in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. At the moment it is estimated that over 2 billion of the world’s population suffers chronic hunger and the sad fact is that many of those involved in this current debate cannot even define, let alone appreciate what CHRONIC HUNGER is.
In trying to find medium to long term solutions to these problems that have become an ‘embarrassment’ to the world in the early 21st Century, various attempts have been made over decades to improve the situation from the so-called “Green Revolution” which helped to lift many Asian countries out of their food poverty to food fortification, improvements in agricultural technology and finding new ways to improve yield, increase disease resistance and spoilage and ensure high yield food production in relatively arid lands where rainfall patterns can be erratic and where whole farming seasons can be ruined when beautifully growing crops can be damaged affecting whole regions mid-season for lack of rainfall. Introducing food biotechnology and GM Foods into this equation was bound to be a ‘natural’ development as the technology has become more and more available to food technologists, agriculturists and biotechnologists worldwide including in Africa. This is particularly the case when indeed we examine reasons behind; and ways in which the poor in Europe, America and elsewhere have been able to maintain a decent food supply and avoid chronic hunger because of food availability and relatively low prices of food commodities resulting from large scale food production and mechanised agriculture employing modern technology including food biotechnology. In this sense, any debate on GM Food should not be restricted to grains, but must also include fruits, vegetables and animal breeding from birds (poultry) to mammals (e.g. sheep, cattle and pigs) which we find on markets worldwide.

There is no doubt that introducing technologies such as genetic engineering into our food system require careful consideration by all stakeholders, not least the public or consumers who afterall will either be the beneficiaries or the ones that any harm will ultimately affect. Such a discourse and a thorough examination of the strengths and weaknesses of introducing such new technologies however needs to be properly informed, well balanced and rely on an EVIDENCE-BASE to allay the fears and anxieties of consumers whilst ensuring that we as a people do not also ignore alternative local and proven solutions to our problems, and do not ‘sell our soul’ to outside commercial interests whose primary agenda is to make profit; secondary agenda is to make more profit; and third agenda is to make even more profit whilst ensuring that they hold us ‘hostage’ and disenfranchise among others, our local farmers whose livelihood has always depended upon the lands that they till and the animals that they breed naturally and have done for generations. By the way the “Green Revolution” in Africa did not seem to follow the Asian success and one even wonders if the GM agenda would fare better if given the opportunity on ‘African soil’.

To address the issue of checks and balances to govern our food system requires not just legislation, but proper regulatory oversight of what is already in the system and on our markets to ensure that food quality and safety are assured (without bribes and short-cuts) at all times. Our food regulatory authority needs to demonstrate that it has both the technical knowhow and capacity to effectively ‘police the system’ to ensure that we can trace, monitor and recall any food products (be they GM or not) which are found to be unwholesome or injurious to health for any reason. With regards to legislation, our law makers in parliament have a duty to us, to scrutinise carefully any Bills that are put before them on any subject including our food system and must not simply vote on ‘party lines’, especially those on the government’s side who may be introducing such a Bill.

It is my understanding that currently there is a draft Bill in circulation which is due for debate in Ghana’s parliament on the subject of “Plant breeding” – i.e. the so-called “GM Food Bill”. Whilst one has no beef against introducing such an important landmark Bill, it is rather regrettable that a copy is not in the public domain to allow experts, academics and others with the right technical background to examine it and to provide some input into the final Bill to be debated in parliament. My reasons for lamentation (although parliamentary processes often work in the opposite direction, only calling for ‘public consultation’ after a Bill has been passed e.g. the Health Reform Bill in the UK a few years ago) is because so far, this debate about GM seems to have been ‘hijacked’ by a select few who seem to be ‘privy’ to it but yet appear to lack any real substance of what is contained in it, and their constant ‘bombardment’ of the airwaves, news media and social media, some parading as ‘Echo-Warriors’ and condemning it even before we have seen and analysed its contents, is tantamount to a negative campaign and to discolour the public’s perception of what is a very technical subject and for which ‘scaremongering’ only serves to confuse and cause public anxiety unduly.

There has to be an informed debate on all matters GM and especially as it relates to our food system, but what is troubling is the blanket dismissal of GM as ‘alien’ to our culture; “dangerous to our health”; a “conspiracy” by multinationals to “take over” our food system. Equally, the ‘unqualified support for GM Foods given by others who are equally guilty of bias and the associated misinformation, propaganda and silly ‘spinning’ of the facts from both sides of the argument does nothing to enhance public understanding but if anything undermines the very arguments that each side seeks to advance.

In my next article, I hope to focus on examining the scientific evidence so far (or the lack thereof) as put forward by those against GM Foods. I hope you will join me in that debate.