Scientists, politicians and farmers are urging the government of Ghana to pass new laws that will strengthen the local seed industry and make improved seeds more available to farmers.
Specifically, they are asking the government to re-introduce the Plant Breeders’ Bill, which is expected to help make the country more competitive in the seed industry and ensure food security.
The bill was first introduced to Parliament about six years ago but has yet to be approved. Parliament suspended work on it in 2015 following protests from some civil society and farmer groups that claimed it would cause farmers to lose ownership of their seeds.
If ultimately approved, the bill will give scientists and science institutions intellectual property over new plant varieties they develop so they can earn royalties on the products. Scientists say this will encourage more private investments in the seed sector for the benefit of farmers and the nation as a whole.
“What it seeks to do is to give the scientists who develop the seeds some royalties to enable the scientists and organizations developing the seeds to continue doing it,” explained Dr. Richard Ameyaw Ampadu, a research scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). “The government is not giving the scientists money to develop seeds for our farmers. But we need different seed varieties for farmers to have optimum choice.”
He added: “More diseases and pests will continue to come. So we need to develop something to block them. So we need money so the scientists can continue to do their work. That is why we are talking about this bill. We want Parliament to sit down to pass the law as soon as possible to ensure improvement in the seed sector.”
In Africa, more than 10 countries, including Kenya, Morocco, South Africa, Tanzania, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, have passed a Plant Breeders’ Bill into law. This has accelerated the introduction of new plant varieties and led to the transformation of their agricultural sector.
South Africa, a leader in Africa’s seed market, has had a Plant Breeders’ Rights law since 1976 and the industry has benefitted greatly from it. That country releases more improved seeds every year for use by farmers than Ghana. For example, according to the September 2018 edition of the Africa Seed Access Index, South Africa over the last three years released 363 varieties of four of the country’s major crops, while Ghana released only 17.
Ghana’s agricultural sector wants to have that increased competitiveness in their industry, hence the demand for the law. In 2015, more than 200 scientists from the CSIR, West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) of the University of Ghana, the Ghana National Association of Farmers and Fishermen and the Biotechnology and Nuclear, Agriculture Research Institute of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission, among others, petitioned Parliament to speedily pass the bill.
Their petition noted: “This bill is an important measure to combat poverty in our country. Our farmers desperately need access to improved varieties of our staple crops. This is essential if we are to continue to modernize agriculture.”
As Prof. Eric Yirenkyi Danquah, director of WACCI, observed: “If the development of new varieties in Ghana is not underpinned by science and technology, the country will not attain food and nutrition security in our lifetime. Passage of the Ghana Plant Breeders’ Bill will encourage investments for the development of superior varieties of staple crops urgently needed in farmers’ fields to spark a green revolution in the country.”
Dr.Hans Adu-Dapaah, former director of the Crop Research Institute, wrote: “Breeding takes a long time and a lot of resources to develop varieties. Efforts of breeders have to be recognized and rewarded. This will encourage development of more improved varieties tolerant to diseases, pests, heat and drought for use by farmers to mitigate the effects of climate change.”
The approval process for the bill was suspended to allow for further consultation following objections by some groups. Abdul-Rahman Mohammed, national president of the Peasant Farmers Association of Ghana, has kicked against the bill, insisting “it will allow foreign seed corporations to take control of the Ghana seed industry in the name of intellectual property rights. Our agricultural sector cannot grow by relying on the importation of seeds from foreigners.”
But Kwasi Etu-Bondie, a member of Parliament’s Food, Agriculture and Cocoa Committee and MP for Kintampo North, disagrees. He says it will ensure that Ghana benefits from its improved varieties abroad.
He cited maize and palm oil as two main crops that Ghana is losing a lot from because there is no Plant Breeders’ Bill . “Obantapa is the only maize with the highest protein in the world. And this maize is being grown in the whole of West Africa. Ghana invested in the scientists at Crop Research Institute to produce it. But everyone is taking it free without paying a dividend to Ghana. That is what we are saying that we have to protect,” he said.
“Everyone knows oil palm was bred in West Africa. And now we know oil palm is making good money for Malaysia, which took the seed from Ghana. If we have this bill, Malaysia will be paying something to Ghana,” he added. “We are looking at the Plant Breeder’s Bill to make sure we will get something out of our genetic resources. It’s like a copyright or patent we are trying to use to protect our genetic resources and scientific invention in agriculture.”
Currently, less than 10 percent of farmers in Ghana use improved seeds, with the majority of them relying on traditional varieties that do not yield much. This has led to low productivity on a lot of farms in the country. For example, the average yield of maize in Ghana is about 1.7 tonnes per hectare, while in the US some farmers are able to produce up to 22 tonnes per hectare due to the use improved seeds. Last year, Ghana had to import seeds from neighboring countries, including Burkina Faso, for the government’s flagship Planting for Food and Jobs Initiative because local companies could not produce enough.
“It was unfortunate that when seed dealers in Ghana were challenged to supply us with adequate seeds for our farmers, they were found wanting. We have had to import seeds from sister countries because we were in urgent need of them,” Minister for Food and Agriculture Dr. Akoto Owusu Afriyie lamented.
John Awuku Dziwornu of the Ghana National Farmers and Fishermen Association believes these challenges would be fixed if the Plant Breeders’ Bill is passed into law. “The bill will help ensure more investments in the seed industry and ensure availability of good seeds. It must be passed as soon as possible,” he said in an interview with Alliance for Science.
Former Deputy Minister for Food and Agriculture Dr. Ahmed Alhassan Yakubu is also pushing for the immediate passage of the bill. “It was in the wisdom of the leadership of Parliament that the bill was put on hold. It’s about time that the bill was taken back to Parliament for it to be passed… noting that a number of countries that took inspiration from our bill have actually passed them into full fledge acts and are benefiting from global resources that govern that aspect of biological innovations,” he observed.
The bill is also expected to enhance the environment to allow for the introduction of biotech crops, although the National Biosafety Act, which permits the introduction of GMOs into the country, has already been passed.
“In actual fact, there is no linkage between the biotechnology bill, which has been passed into law, and the Plant Breeders’ Bill. The only thing to connect it is that, when you talk of GM, it is research. The non-GM crops, they are also research. So it is just that the scientist who is developing the GM and the non-GM are going to benefit from their work,” CSIR’s Dr. Ameyaw explained.