When I was a little boy, what I feared most were the masqueraders. Do you know who the masqueraders are? They’re human beings wearing masks or with writings on their faces and costumed in scary materials from top to down, sometimes walking on stilts. You would usually come across them during local festivals or sometimes at Christmas, asking for money. I ran as fast as my legs would carry me anytime I saw them. I thought they were from another planet and not from Earth. As I grew up, I realized that they were gentle human beings and even relatives and known people from my community.
If you ask me to describe genetically modified organisms (GMOs) today, this example will be the best description I will give. Thanks to the work of anti-science groups, a lot of people in Africa today see GMOs as scarecrows and masqueraders when in fact the opposite is true. The age-old saying that it’s easier to build than to destroy has proven to be true in the case of GMOs. And so is the popular saying that bad news travels fast.
Despite all the evidence that GMOs are safe, as has been confirmed by a countless number of renowned world science institutions, the activities of anti-GMO groups continue to create doubts in the minds of people. The Food and Agricultural Organisation, European Union Commission, National Academy of Arts and Sciences, Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have all repeatedly confirmed the safety of GMOs.
But a small number of loud, anti-science groups continue to feed the populace with misinformation about this noble technology that has helped boost the incomes of smallholder farmers in South Africa, several Southern American countries and even in neighbouring Burkina Faso.
In South Africa, for example, work on the introduction of biotech crops started in 1997 and the country has since made a lot of progress with its application. Estimates are that between 1998 and 2015, economic gain from GM crops to South Africa stood at $2.1 billion. More than 80 percent of maize and soya grown in South Africa is GM, but no one has ever died or gotten cancer or kidney failure from consuming them.
The story is the same in the United States of America, where GMOs are even more widely consumed and haven’t killed anyone. Before Burkina Faso pulled brakes, for political reasons, on growing Bt cotton, it was estimated that the amount of additional profit gained by farmers averaged about 51 percent in savings on labour for spraying and investments in chemicals. A national study has shown that the introduction of Bt cultivars in Burkina Faso led to a 22 percent increase in yield over conventional cultivars.
No one died in Burkina Faso from the introduction of Bt cotton there. In fact, farmers reported that the introduction of GMO cotton was good for their health. When they used conventional cotton seeds, they sprayed their cotton fields with chemicals between 7 and 10 times per planting season to control pests but were doing so only twice with GMO cotton. The positive examples of growing GMOs from Brazil to Argentina and several other countries are endless.
Ghana passed the National Biosafety Act 2011 to allow for the commercialisation of GMOs in the country. Trials are ongoing by the CSIR as part of regulatory processes before they will be allowed onto the market. The big question on the minds of several people in the country is, should Ghana accept GMOs or allow the critics whose arguments are unscientific but emotional to have their way? Are GMOs scarecrows or heaven-sent doves? I believe the latter is the case.
If you are a farmer like me and you knew the risk and dangers associated with the overuse of chemicals on our farms just to control pests, and if you were personally impacted by the destruction that pests and diseases can cause to crops and how that is making farmers lose yields, you would agree with me that there is no way that anti-science activists should be allowed to have their way.
The refusal to apply technology to food production is a bigger danger to our health as a people than the adoption of GMOs. As a retired extension officer, I visited farms as part of my job to educate farmers. I saw with my own eyes how farmers sprayed their ripe eggplants with chemicals just a few hours before harvesting. This is despite the education we give them that they should allow at least some days to two weeks between final spraying and harvesting.
No wonder research done some years ago in Ghana showed some vegetables collected from the market and taken to the laboratory for tests had chemical residues on them. So, if plants can be genetically engineered to be pest-resistant so as to help reduce the use of pesticides on crops, why shouldn’t we embrace it?
The lack of understanding, ignorance, and misinformation in the public domain about the use of modern technology in agriculture needs to be corrected. Not embracing technology amounts to taking all of us back to the stone-age and we should not allow that to happen. GMOs are obviously not the silver bullet to dealing with all the food security challenges the world faces today. But for a sustained food production, GMO technology is obviously one of the key tools that farmers like me should be allowed to have.
GMO technology simply involves moving the desired gene from one material to another to produce an improved variety. We have been doing this for God knows how many years now through conventional plant breeding methods. So why the brouhaha?
The clarion call from us, the farmers, is that we want to have the freedom to access biotechnology as a tool to help deal with the challenges on our farms. Improved seeds are a need and not a luxury. We need GMO seeds in Africa to be able to feed the increasing population on our continent, help improve food security and reduce poverty.