A debate on GMO labeling has emerged in Ghana as it prepares to release its first biotech crop.
While some civil society groups are demanding mandatory labeling, scientists are urging caution. The issues raised in Ghana mirror those that have driven discussions around GM product labeling throughout the world.
Ghana is on the verge of commercializing genetically modified crops with the completion of field trials on pest-resistant Bt cowpea. Scientists have indicated they will soon apply to regulators for commercial release of the variety, which has been bred with inherent resistance to certain insect pests, thus reducing the need for pesticide applications.
Now there is debate on whether the products should carry a GMO label when they enter the market. The 2011 National Biosafety Act makes no specific provisions for labeling, and the National Biosafety Authority and Food and Drugs Authority are now considering guidelines for that.
Eric Okoree, chief executive officer of the National Biosafety Authority, said the agency is still collating views from the public on whether Ghana’s GMOs will be labeled, after which the necessary guidelines will be published. “The authority cannot have a position on labeling. We are gathering the views of the public in collaboration with the Food and Drugs Authority. Labeling will be a national decision,” he explained.
Prof. Walter Alhassan, former director general of Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), said there is no need to label the GM crops under development in Ghana because they are same as the conventional varieties. “Because the product is substantially the same as the non-GM product, and it’s safe, there is no need for labeling,” he told the Alliance for Science in an interview. “Personally, I think there should be no labeling. At best, voluntary labeling.”
Group demands mandatory labeling
But Food Sovereignty Ghana, a civil society group that has worked against GMOs, recently issued a statement demanding mandatory labeling of GMO crops. “We wish to state categorically that our right to know what is in our food is a fundamental human right. It is not up for debate. There is no way our laws on the labeling of GMOs should be voluntary, as some usual suspects appear to be suggesting,” the statement read. “We demand a mandatory labeling of all food products derived wholly or partially from GMOs! Traceability and culpability lead to responsibility; responsibility leads to safety.”
But Alhassan disagrees with the claim that labeling GMOs has anything to do with safety. Given the rigorous tests that GMOs under go, unsafe products will not even have the chance to get on the market.
“The danger of mandatory labeling is, for the uninitiated, you may say that this is a product that is probably not safe. When people are asking for labeling, we tend to confuse it with safety. But the safety has been taken care of. It’s been 22 years now [since people began eating GM foods]. Not a single person has gone to see a doctor for even a headache concerning a GMO, let alone dying,” Alhassan said.
The respected scientist insisted that it will be confusing to attempt labeling GMO products because many foods on the market in Africa are sold unpackaged. “Even if we insist on the labeling, how are you going to handle the woman in the ‘Agbogbloshie’ market or other markets where they have the cowpea in the open, unpackaged? If the product is not packaged, the law does not bind you to label it. So what will they achieve?” he asked.
Alhassan further argued that the lack of packaging will make a mandatory labeling law unenforceable. “You cannot enforce it if you cannot monitor. So what’s the point?”
Dr. Alexander Wireko Kena, a plant breeding lecturer at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, said Ghana must avoid labels that simply state that the product contains GMOs.
“Just putting a GM label or stamping it on the package will not help anyone,” he said. “That will not be enough to suffice for consumers to make a good decision. If I go to the market to buy a car, it’s not enough to know that this is a car. I should know the capabilities of the car, the specifications. That is good labeling. If it is just about blanket labeling, lumping all GM crops as just GM, then it’s unfair. It reduces the competitive advantage GM will have over their existing counterparts.”
Kena said labeling should reflect the reason why that GM crop was produced.
“For instance, the GM rice crop with high vitamin A content — that is the information that could help a consumer to make a decision, that if I buy GM rice, I am going to boost vitamin A content in my body for healthy living,” he said.
GMO labeling elsewhere
GMO labeling remains a controversial issue all over the world. The United States Congress passed a 2016 bill to standardize mandatory labeling. New guidelines subsequently proposed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) give food manufacturers the choice to write “contains bioengineered food ingredients,” fix a standardized icon on the products, or use a QR code that directs consumers to a website with more information on the product. The agency is now developing its final labeling rules, following completion of a public comment period.
Following passage of the Biosafety Act in Kenya, the Bureau of Standards in 2010 published a regulation that GM products must be labeled. A Gazette Supplement in 2012 introduced additional requirements that insisted, among other rules, that labels should refer to the GM content in the same font size used for the other ingredients and trademarks. Those who violate it could face a fine and imprisonment of up to 10 years.
South Africa has had laws since 2004 requiring compulsory labels if the GM product differs significantly from conventional counterparts. However, it was hardly enforced as all current GM foods are considered substantially equivalent and no different from their conventional counterparts. New laws were introduced in 2008 requiring labeling of all GM products based on the belief that the consumer has “a right to know.” Food manufacturers must now disclose whether products “contain GMOs,” were “produced using genetic modification” or “may contain GMOs.”
Dr. Rose Gidado, coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Nigeria, said the law there requires labeling above a certain threshold. However, she disagrees with the idea of labeling. “My take on it is ‘no labeling’ since the products of GM are substantially equivalent to non GM,” Gidado explained.