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Ghana’s pro-science voices are rising

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

Dr. Akoto Owusu Afriyie, nominated as Ghana's Minister for Food and Agriculture, supports biotech.

There appears to be a new dawn in Ghana — an era that is seeing pro-science individuals gradually finding their voices in a society that is largely conservative and cautious about changing the old ways of doing things. This has been most evident in how the debate is being conducted over whether the country should adopt biotechnology (GMOs) in its food system.

Since a vibrant conversation started in the country on the technology sometime in 2013, the anti-GMO voices have clearly drowned out the pros. But now it seems like the pro–science individuals are finally “turning the page” and discovering their voices.

Political power changed hands in Ghana on Jan. 7, 2017 and this saw veteran opposition politician Nana Akufo-Addo take over as president from John Damani Mahama. Days later Akufo-Addo announced the members of his cabinet and appointed Cambridge University-trained agric-economist Dr. Akoto Owusu Afriyie as Minister for Food and Agriculture.

Per the dictates of Ghanaian law, the president’s ministerial nominees are supposed to be approved by parliament. The practice is that a sub-committee of the house called the Appointment’s Committee holds a public vetting session during which appointees are quizzed on their level of knowledge about the sector they have been nominated to head. This committee then submits a report to the entire parliament on whether to approve the nominee.

On Jan. 18, the anti-GMO civil society group Food Sovereignty Ghana (FSG) petitioned parliament asking it not to approve Afriyie as Minister. FSG also asked the president to withdraw his nomination.

The basis for the demand was that the minister is pro-GMO, and that his public utterances indicate he does not believe consuming GMOs is harmful to human health. Quoting excerpts of a 2014 television interview, in which the minister dismissed claims that GMOs are harmful, the FSG petition said: “…he neglects to mention that Americans are trying to pull away from GMOs. Evidence begins to emerge that a multitude of health problems, including cancer clusters in the US, may be linked to GMOs and their toxic chemicals.”

The petition continued: “Does Dr. Afriyie Akoto think the only danger to our health is posed from something that kills you immediately when you touch or taste it? Evidence of the serious dangers of GMOs have [sic] been emerging with increasing frequency and urgency. Dr. Afriyie Akoto appears to have missed them completely.”

The subject of GMOs remains controversial and sensitive in Ghana. People who publicly declare support for GMOs are usually attacked by anti-GMO activists who accuse them of selling their integrity for money and placing corporate profit above national interest. So no one expected counter reactions to the FSG petition, which received widespread media attention.

But this time around, farmers and scientists stepped up in defense of the minister’s position that GMOs are not deadly. John Awuku Dziwornu, a Cornell Alliance for Science Fellow and vice chairman of the Ghana National Association of Farmers and Fishermen (GNAFF), issued a statement challenging the position of FSG and insisting that GMOs have been proven to be scientifically safe and beneficial. “We at GNAFF believe it is only science and technology that will help us achieve food security and that is what the minister stands for,” he noted.

Dziwornu added: “Between the minister and Food Sovereignty Ghana, who understands GMOs? The minister is a farmer, and I think his knowledge about how government can drive agric through science and technology is very paramount. He understands the role that GMOs can play in our food security better than Food Sovereignty Ghana.”

Scientists, who for a long time have shied away from the media banter on issues relating to GMOs, also waded into the debate. Dr. Daniel Osei Ofosu, a research scientist at the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute (BNARI) of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission who doubles as country director of the Programs for Biosafety Systems (PBS), granted media interviews challenging the claims in FSG’s petition.

“FSG has not been able to prove that GMOs are dangerous. They are just fear mongering. World bodies like the World Health Organization and Food and Agriculture Organization have attested to the safety of GMOs. Ghana has the requisite laws to safeguard the general public and has the institutions with the capacity to regulate the technology,” Osei Ofosu explained.

Even before the minister appeared before the Appointment’s Committee of Parliament, its chairman, Joseph Osei Owusu, had hinted the petition lacks merit. “It’s only a matter of opinion… Because you believe A is the best and he believes B is the best, he is not fit to be a minister? Do we know how many other people believe in the minister?” he said in a media interview.

Eventually, the minister appeared before the Appointment’s Committee. He defended his position on GMOs, although he stated clearly that is not exactly a priority for him. He said: “GMO has been adopted and it is actually the force behind American agriculture now. America produces GMOs and Americans are not dying of some funny cancers and so on. So I don’t even know where this whole impression is coming from.”

For many years, the anti -GMO movement has organized demonstrations, filed court suits and been loud in the media demanding a ban on the processes to commercialize GMOs. For a very long time it has had a field day within the media space propagating its anti -GMO message. If the above story had broken three or four years ago, it is very likely the petition would have gone unchallenged. But as the pro–science individuals find their voices they are speaking out in defense of science. Now the battle lines are gradually being drawn ahead of commercialization of GMO crops next year. 

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