A Rejoinder to the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana’s article cautioning Ghanaians against consuming GMO foods during Christmas festivities.
This article cautioning Ghanaians on the influx of GM foods during the Christmas period and cautioning against their consumption is a characteristic alarmist anti-GMO stance by PFAG and collaborating NGOs.
The misdirection of its members seems to continue despite efforts by the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) and partner agencies to create the needed awareness on issues of modern biotechnology. Such efforts need to be intensified as and when resources are made available. In the absence of GM product that informed farmers yearning for a technology to address production constraints can lay their hands on, the misrepresentation of facts by PFAG and related NGOs will continue. Hopefully, when pipeline GM products, like the Pod Borer Resistant cowpea and the Nitrogen Use Efficient rice are released for farmer cultivation, the penchant for misinformation on GM in agriculture will greatly reduce.
The assertion that “GMOs are dangerous to health, are a leading cause of carcinogenic diseases, threat to environment sustainability and threat to ownership of seeds by local farmers” is a cliché in use by anti-GMO activists globally. This is fuelled by the rejected study by Seralini on GM-prone rats fed GM maize (herbicide tolerant) over a protracted 2-year period. Seralini falsely demonstrated that these cancer-prone rats developed tumours due to the feeding of the herbicide-tolerant GM maize. The journal of Food and Chemical Technology in which the study was published in 2012 retracted the publication with the statement, “Seralini’s study was unethical, poorly-done, and ideologically motivated”.
There is no scientific evidence advanced, despite 21 years of use of GM products in the food chain that the products are responsible for human health problems. There is not a single case of disease in humans that has been identified that is attributable to eating GM foods. In principle, absolute safety in plant foods consumed cannot be guaranteed, be this conventional, so-called organic or GM. Any of these can contain allergenic substances if consumed by susceptible persons, toxic or carcinogenic compounds. GM foods are subjected to rigorous safety assessment before release for use more so than conventional or so-called organic foods. The general principle in safety assessment for these GM foods is that they are at least as safe as their conventional counterparts. In some cases, as in Bt maize, the approved GM product may be safer than the conventional or organic counterpart.
THE ENTIRE APPROVED GM FOODS ARE SAFE TO EAT. This assertion is supported by the FAO, WHO, OECD, EU and Academies of Science around the world including, of course, those from Africa. Nobel Laureates have added their support to the call for access to GM technologies. The following quote from a 2016 press release from a group of Nobel Laureates is pertinent:
“A significant number of Nobel Laureates from diverse disciplines are voicing their support for GMO precision agriculture and calling on leaders of Greenpeace, the United Nations and governments around the world to join them. More than 100 Nobel Prize winners in fields including Medicine, Economics, Physics, Chemistry, Literature and Peace have signed an open letter asking Greenpeace and others who have been blocking progress and access to beneficial plant biotechnology products, like Golden Rice, to abandon their campaigns against GMOs”( http://supportprecisionagriculture.org/).
In some countries, like those in the EU, the labelling of foods with GM ingredients is mandatory. In others, it is voluntary. Labelling is not a safety issues as GM products released for commerce have been rigorously safety checked. There are cost implications associated with labelling associated with monitoring. Till date there is no international agreement i.e. at the Codex Alimentarius Commission level on labelling GM foods. Codex is the international agency providing guidelines on food safety and labelling. Ghana is yet to declare a policy on GM labelling. This is under consideration at the Food and Drug Authority level.
The worry over farmers losing their seeds as a result of the introduction of new varieties of seed by multinational companies is exaggerated. The introduced seeds cannot displace all the local varieties produced by public sector research institutions and the landraces (farmers’ own developed seeds). The national gene bank managed by the CSIR-Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute at Bunso conserves all such local gerplasm and those sourced from outside Ghana. The current seed laws (Plant and Fertiliser Act, 2010) do not allow for the direct sale of foreign developed seeds that can be locally produced to farmers. Vegetable seeds appear to be an exception. Such foreign seeds will normally be evaluated in-country by public research institutions like the CSIR efficacy. There will be room for technology transfer to the CSIR or other public research institution.
The suspicion over the intentions of multinationals for domination in the seed sector of African countries and in particular, small-scale farmers must give for partnerships that will result in win-win outcomes. Both need each other to succeed. Effective negotiation during technology transfer and trade is the key.
The PFAG has not provided evidence to back its observation “with dismay the recent dumping of GM products in Ghana and attributed this to rejection by consumers in USA, Brazil, Argentina, Canada and South Africa where they originate”. The statement is alarmist. What are the GM foods dumped on the nation? It is possible that some pre-packaged foods in the supermarkets may indicate a GM ingredient as source. If that is the case, the DNA fragments in these are denatured and safe to consume. If even the genetically engineered (GE) DNA is intact at consumption, it will be completely denatured by the digestion process.
The bulk of the GM crops produced globally are used for livestock feed. The predominant ingredients are soybean and maize. The most sensitive analytical tools have not identified the foreign DNA in the tissues of animals fed such GM feeds. Thus, broiler meat, eggs, milk or beef from animals fed GM feeds are safe to consume if other criteria for wholesomeness are met.
The warning issued by the Ghana Food and Drug Authority (FDA) for consumer awareness on product expiry dates and general wholesomeness must be heeded at all times.
That said, the PFAG admonition for the consumption of locally produced animal and plant products is good if these products are wholesome.
Having established that GMOs cleared for use by the national regulatory agencies (in Ghana the National Biosafety Authority-NBA) are safe to eat, it will be realised that most of the issues raised against GMOs by the PFAG are not evidence or science-based and are thus subjective.
The GM technology for agriculture is not a silver bullet and thus cannot solve all problems of agriculture. It is one of several technologies that should be considered and complemented as needed. GM introduction will not replace all technologies currently in use. Thus conventional open-pollinated (farmer can save seeds), hybrid conventional seeds (farmer cannot save seeds but must buy every year), GM seeds (farmer can save and reuse seeds if not hybrid) will present a choice to farmers. Organic farming, integrated pest management, chemical fertilisers, pesticides and the use of organic manure can all be used depending on choice and level of technological capacity. Stewardship issues will assume importance as more advanced technologies are adopted.
The continuous building of technological capacities of the country’s scientists, public research institutions, the universities and associated regulatory agencies should receive priority funding support by government to ensure Ghana is abreast with the new technologies in food production and processing.
Prof Walter Sandow Alhassan
Director, Biotechnology and Stewardship for Sustainable Agriculture in West Africa (BSSA)
Former Director General of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, CSIR