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Opinions of Sunday, 1 July 2018

Columnist: Cameron Duodu

This tilapia ‘ban’ makes nonsense of the scientific method

On the face of it, we should be grateful to the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development for acting so very fast to save us from the danger that it says threatens our food supply system through the “spread of Tilapia Lake Virus”.

According to the Ministry:

QUOTE: Tilapia Lake Virus is a newly emerging virus that is associated with significant mortalities in farmed tilapia. Cases have been reported across Africa, Asia and South America. The virus represents a huge risk to the global tilapia industry. This means that all countries should be vigilant and act quickly to investigate cases of mortalities in farms. In line with this, the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development is placing a BAN on the import of all ornamental fishes and tilapia species (live and dead) including gametes-eggs and milk into the country, effect from 1st July to 31st December 2018. UNQUOTE

I am afraid my amateur knowledge of the “scientific method” suggests to me that the Ministry has short-changed the Ghanaian public with this precipitate “BAN” on the import of tilapia into Ghana. (Let’s ignore the “ornamental fish” for the moment.)

You see, if I notice pains in my neck and go to complain to a doctor, the doctor does not cut off my neck to relieve me of the pains! Instead, he asks me whether I sleep on a pillow or not; if I sleep on a pillow, what sort of pillow it is; he asks further whether I feel pains anywhere else in my upper body; do I have a history of back trouble; have I ever had a concussion; do I exhibit any signs that I might have once injured my spinal column. And so on and so forth.

On the basis of the answers I provide, the doctor would order a series of tests to be able definitively to establish the cause(s) of my pain, through a process of elimination. It is what the tests tell him about my body that enables him to say, “Your pains are caused by a, b or c. and are symptoms of disease d, e, or f. I shall treat the disease with medications g, h, or I, or ask you to and see (1) a specialist (surgeon or neurologist). The specialists will carry out further tests which will determine what sort of treatment you should receive.”

By doing that, my doctor would be following “the scientific method”, which is outlined in brief as follows: QUOTE: Though there are diverse models for the scientific method available, in general there is a continuous process that includes observations about the natural world. People are naturally inquisitive, so they often come up with questions about things they see or hear, and they often develop ideas or hypotheses about why things are the way they are. The best hypotheses lead to predictions that can be tested in various ways. The most conclusive testing of hypotheses comes from reasoning based on carefully controlled experimental data. Depending on how well additional tests match the predictions, the original hypothesis may require refinement, alteration, expansion or even rejection. UNQUOTE

The principles of “the scientific method” suggest to me that the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development would have acted more professionally if had first established the sources of tilapia imported into Ghana; and where these sources are known to include the areas where Tilapia Lake Virus has been detected to be active, it should have placed a quarantine on all stocks from those areas that are already in our ports and have not yet been distributed. It should then have traced and chased all stocks already distributed and placed a similar quarantine on them.

Next, it should have taken samples from the quarantined fish and established, through tests, whether they are infected with Tilapia Lake Virus or not. Any quarantined fish would be released as soon as tests indicated that the stocks were not infected. On the other hand, any fish detected as having been infected, would be destroyed and further imports from the source(s) then banned. Samples of locally-produced fish should also be tested to establish whether, peradventure, cross-contamination had occurred.

Indeed, I’m sure the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquaculture Development has well-established procedures for dealing with the presence of diseased fish and fish products in the country’s food system. Is the Ministry quite certain that it has not jumped the gun and ignored its own preliminary procedures, by imposing the ban on tilapia imports from 1 July 2018?

I draw the Ministry’s attention to two facts: the perception cannot be dismissed that since tilapia consumption is on the rise in Ghana, and many Ghanaian entrepreneurs have invested large sums of money into tilapia production, it would be in the financial interest of some entrepreneurs to do away with competition from abroad, so that they can sell their tilapia at the cut-throat prices that any business monopoly can – by definition – engender.

Of course, monopoly-pricing is not in the public interest, despite the fact that the Ghanaian public does appreciate the need to encourage local production of all sorts of good, especially the food we eat.

But what sensible local entrepreneurs should go for is to find ways of capitalising on low labour costs and other local advantages (such as the known preference of Ghanaian consumers for fresh, as against iced, fish.)

In the past, local producers have often tried to use their political clout eliminate competition whenever they can. Governments have erroneously listened to them in the past, with the result that we can remember such horrendous economic mechanisms as import licensing and kalabule.

It is to be hoped, therefore, that no local business pressure groups are responsible – directly or indirectly – for the implementation of this ban, which will, inevitably remove grilled tilapia from the menus of the middle and low-income earners, and reserve it for the tables of the rich and super-rich.