Wednesday, August 7, 2013

GMO promoters winning as major opponent switches camp and Ghana digs heels

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

It could be described as a battle to control food security. It could even be seen as a game in which the best and skilful players are maneuvering to take over the entire food production and supply chain with multinationals with all the money, power and influence to do so in the lead.

It could also be seen as major scientific breakthroughs in food production to ensure global food security, but the debate over the safety and sustainability of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) has seen some drama in recent months.

Major turn-around

One of the world’s leading critics of GMO has now become a supporter. The man, Mark Lynas, who is a known climate change campaigner, is now calling on some African countries to embrace biotechnology as a tool to ensure food security.

Lynas is the author of the globally acclaimed book, ’60 Degrees’, which has been translated into 26 languages.

Lynas was reported to have said at Makerere University in Uganda that he changed his mind to stop opposing GM when he realised that scientists, upon whom he depended for climate information, were united in supporting GM technology.

According to him, GM technology offers more benefits to humanity and the environment than dangers.

What is GMO?

The non-profit organisation NON-GMO describes GMOs  “genetically modified organisms,” as plants or animals created through the gene splicing techniques of biotechnology (also called genetic engineering, or GE). This experimental technology merges DNA from different species, creating unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding.

Ghana speeds up GMO efforts

Ghana is one of the African countries that is embarking on a GMO crusade. The country quietly passed the biosafety law on December 31, 2011. Information available to says officials of the country’s Ministry of Agriculture were not even consulted before the law was rushed and passed. They made no input into the law.

The Law, from the Biosafety Act, 831, 2011 will enable Ghana to allow the application of biotechnology in food crop production involving Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to enter food production.

And  less than two years after passing the law Ghana has started digging its heels in pursing GMOs. The country has started field trials of some crops. According to the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology, the country has approved four crops to undergo GMO confined field trials (CFTs).

A Director at the Ministry, Mr Eric Amaning Okoree, has said that rice, sweet potato, cotton and cowpea have so far been approved for CFTs. He was speaking in a presentation at a panel discussion organised by the US Embassy in Accra.

Limited field trials for genetically modified cotton and rice crops in selected areas of the country have already started.

Field trials for Bt. rice which commenced in June is taking place in Fumesua in the Ashanti Region, while field cultivation for Bt. cotton, which also started June 30, 2013, are still ongoing at six locations in six districts of the country.

The sites and districts are Kpalkore in the Mion District, Natagu in the Saboba District; Walewale, West Mamprusi District; Pieng, Sissala East District; Pulima, Sissala West and Yobzeri in the Tolon District, all in Ghana’s Northern Region.

Confined on-station field trials have also been approved in Ghana and structures already put in place for Bt. Cowpea as well as for High Protein Sweet Potato, although planting is yet to start, according to Dr. Emmanuel Chamba, Plant Breeder and Principal Investigator for Bt Cotton research at the CSIR-Savanna Agric. Research Institute (SARI), Nyankpala in Tamale.

The US debates

While in Ghana, there is insignificant opposition and debate about GMOs, in the US, there are worries and intense discussions.

Prof. Jeff Wolt, Professor of Agronomy and Toxicology, Biosafety Institute for Genetically Modified Agricultural Products, Iowa State University has said in 2011 that there are no known dangers from GMOs.

He said in the United States 93% of soybean and over 70% of corn are genetically modified and he said the country has regulatory mechanisms that regulate the safety of GMOs. He indicated that the US started commercializing GMOs in 1996, arguing that scientists have evaluated GMOs and they cannot find any risks. He was of the view that questions about safety are a judgement concerning the perceived risks of GMOs. According to him, scientists have done evaluations and can see no reason that GMOs that are grown in the US and other parts of the world cannot be considered as safe.

He said “there are negligible risks in GMOs, because there are no risks to the population.”

On it’s front page of today August 6, 2013, the Epoch Times of New York reports that the city has joined the GMO labeling debate. The paper starts the report in these words, “No one today can tell if the food they buy is made from genetically modified organisms(GMOs), unless they buy organic food.” In other words organic products are labeled but GMOs are not.

According to the paper three quarters of processed foods on store shelves in the US contain GMO based ingredients, adding that no scientific consensus exists on the safety of GMOs.

The paper adds that while some independent studies claim they are safe, others have identified a range of hazards, including cancer, infertility, and birth defects.

There are some Americans who even believe that GMOs might be responsible for the country’s obesity challenges.

Some even believe that the promotion of GMOs are a subtle attempt to control the world’s population.

“Most genetically modified foods also contain the herbicides they were engineered to resist, the health effects of which are likewise uncertain,” the paper says.

The paper citing a Washington-based non-profit, Food & Water Watch reports that despite overwhelming public support for GMO labeling as shown in dozens of surveys conducted in more than a decade, the effort to get GMOs labeled has met with resistance at the federal level with support of over half a billion dollars spent on lobbying by biotechnology giants like Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow Chemical.

So far in the US, only Connecticut and Maine have passed GMO labeling laws.

Meanwhile, GM corn or maize now makes about 81% of the trade in crops globally and 89% of the soybean supplied between 2009 and 2010 was from GM corn countries, available data shows.

Data also shows that international trade in GM seeds has grown to about $42 billion.

Data from the Iowa State University indicates that more than 70 countries in the world have harmonised their seed policies and regulations since 1992.

As the battle goes on, it is clear that promoters of GMOs are winning, but for how long?