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Ghana’s bold bet on biosafety

By Samantha Hautea

Eric Okoree

Ghana’s National Biosafety Authority (NBA) this month issued guidelines for the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), a landmark step forward for modern biotechnology in the country.

“With these guidelines issued, Ghana can become a model in Africa,” said Eric Okoree, chief executive officer of the NBA. “We are telling the world, and Ghanaians, that we have opened the door and we are making ourselves open and ready to receive and consider applications for GMO use.”

Parliament has yet to approve the implementing regulations for the country’s 2011 Biosafety Act (Act 831), which established the NBA as the administrative body with power over all decisions on the use of GMOs in Ghana. However, the NBA was not implemented until February 2015, thus stalling effective implementation of the Act.

“There’s the need to have the regulations to guide the implementation of the law,” Okoree explained. He emphasized that the NBA’s mandate is “effective biosafety to ensure safe use, handling, and transport of GMOs in Ghana,” and making sure GMOS are thoroughly evaluated for safety. In accordance with the Act, the NBA has the authority to develop and issue guidelines to meet this goal.

The document is the result of over six months of extensive consultation with partner institutions and technical experts in biosafety and biotechnology. Titled the “Biosafety Guidelines for Handling Requests for the Use of Genetically Modified Organisms in Ghana,” the guidelines seek to eliminate the uncertainties around GMO use by providing a clearer process for application, review, and approval/rejection by the NBA. Activities under the scope of the guidelines include confined trials, release into the environment, release onto the market, import/export, and transit of GMOs.

To date, no GM crops have been approved or registered for cultivation, import, or marketing in Ghana. Field tests are ongoing for some transgenic crops, such as Nitrogen-Use Efficient, Water-Use Efficient and Salt-Tolerant (NEWEST) rice and Bt cowpea. The guidelines could provide a basis for finally releasing them to the public.

As a civil servant who has been part of the long process of developing Ghana’s biosafety system for more than 17 years, Okoree does not see the guidelines as a culmination of his efforts. Instead, it is merely the beginning of a more extensive process to develop Ghana as a leader in the region.

To effectively implement the guidelines and be able to evaluate GMO applications adequately, the NBA is also working to upgrade the skills of various working groups, inspectors, and technical experts identified in the Act. Building an effective system will depend on serious investment in building capacity and expertise. It is no small feat to undertake, which is why the NBA wants to make it clear that it is looking for partners to help it achieve its goal.

“We believe this will prompt any capacity development oriented agency with interest in Ghana to contact us,” Okoree added. “We invite capacity-building partnerships to allow this work to move forward.”

The case for GMOs in Ghana

In Ghana, 44.3 percent of the labor force is employed in agriculture, but the country remains heavily dependent on imported food. In 2014, Ghana spent $2.22 billion importing food, including products like rice, which the country has the capacity to grow locally. The region is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as growing insect populations and unreliable rains, all of which affect its ability to dependably produce enough food. Child malnutrition, especially among the poor, is a large public health concern. A report from the World Food program in 2016 showed that 24 percent of child mortality in Ghana is associated with malnutrition, while 37 percent of adults are affected by stunting from a lack of nutrition early in life. 

GM crops, thoughtfully deployed, could have a role to play in addressing these problems. Varieties developed to improve resistance to drought or insect pests could safeguard against yield-reducing calamities, or be grown in areas traditionally unfavorable for certain crops.

Under the Biosafety Act, approval for any GMOs will be done on a case-by-case basis, but there is a strong cause to invest in research now, as it will take years to develop products to meet these needs.

Is the public ready for GMOs?

For some sectors, the guidelines are a timely intervention and incentive for development in the country.

“Ghana is ready for GMO crops,” affirmed John Awuku Dziwornu, vice president of the Ghana National Association of Farmers and Fishermen (GNAFF) and a 2016 Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow. “Farmers are waiting for the opportunity to have access to seeds of cotton, cowpea, and rice to commence production as soon as they can.”

He believes the guidelines will be an assurance to farmers and researchers that any new products they develop will undergo an adequate evaluation and approval process, rather than being indefinitely stuck in limbo.

For Okoree, the outlook for modern biotechnology in Ghana is a mixed blessing. The majority of Ghanaians are indifferent to GMOs, but are willing to listen when the technology is presented to them. At the same time, anti-GMO groups are an increasingly vocal presence in the country. Through misinformation campaigns, protests, and civil suits against the government, they have clamored for the complete halt of import and commercialization of any genetically modified products.

“Technology has a certain kind of nature,” Okoree said. “The acceptance depends on the public understanding of the technology.” He believes that the public can be receptive, as long as advocates for the technology take a pro-active approach instead of being passive.

“If the scientists sit, and let the anti-GMO narrative prevail, then they will carry the day,” he warned.

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