Business News of 2014-07-31

Scientists push for GMO adoption in Ghana

Two Ghanaian research scientists made a case for Ghana to adopt genetic engineering (GE) or genetically modified organisms (GMOs) instead of sticking to the conventional method of breeding.

While agreeing that conventional plant breeding had been going on for hundreds of years and had dramatically increased the productivity and quality of plants for food, feed and fibre, they maintained that it could no longer be sustained.

At the opening of a three-day symposium, organised by the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences (GAAS) on GMOs last Monday, Dr Ibrahim Dzido Kwasi Atokple, a researcher at the Savannah Agricultural Research Institute (SARI), Tamale, said “Conventional breeding is the basis, but with that alone we cannot make progress.”

According to Dr Atokple, practising conventional breeding could no longer be done exclusively, “in view of the population explosion and developments that are taking up the arable lands. So we need to combine all biotechnological tools to increase the productivity of the few lands that are left.”

He said although the USA depended on hybrids for maize till the 1990s, the trend changed for more improved yields by adopting GMOs (inserting genes to improve yields and make maize more tolerant to insects).

“In any case, we started eating GM maize from 1996 till today,” he said, adding that although there had been a few success stories in Ghana, the country could do better. “Almost all the improved varieties grown in Ghana are from conventional breeding but we cannot continue to do this.

“We need to adopt the modern plant breeding strategies and multi-disciplinary and co-ordinated process where a large number of tools and elements of conventional breeding techniques, bioinformatics, molecular genetics, molecular biology and genetic engineering are utilised and integrated to overcome the vagaries of the environment, with respect to climate change, soil degradation and increasing biotic factors,” he stated.

Dr Atokple, who is credited with introducing varieties of Maruka-resistant cowpea (beans) and rice, said it even became more imperative to employ GMO breeding because it was a faster, less laborious and more efficient way to improve crop yields.

He discounted rumours that genes transfer had resulted in deaths. Dr (Mrs) Marian Dorcas Quain, a researcher with the Crops Research Institute, Kumasi, who spoke on “Genetic Engineering and GMO Breeding”, recommended that biotechnology be incorporated in the school curricula to dispel all the myth surrounding it.

She was, however, of the view that genetic engineering was “not the panacea for all our agriculture problems and it should be utilised when all options have failed.” Sharing the findings of a GE survey conducted in 2011, she said although it indicated that the involvement of the government in biotechnology initiatives in Ghana was crucial, the private sector needed to be motivated to be involved since they were the major beneficiaries.

“The ultimate aim of our efforts is to alleviate poverty, hunger and malnutrition in the sub-Saharan region. Public education is crucial as all stakeholders need to make informed decisions based on information from credible sources,” she stressed.

Dr Quain also said genes were now being synthesised in the laboratory using a chemical process, and would not require the direct transfer of genes from animals to crops. She added that in that direction, tests were being conducted to have proteins in staples such as yam and sweet potato which are often eaten without protein.

Contributing to the discussions, Professor Kwabena Mante Bosompem, the acting Chairman of the National Biosafety Committee and a researcher with the Nogouchi Memorial Institute for Medical Research said since the establishment of the committee, a lot of work had been done on the Biosafety Framework.

He added that a Biotechnology and Nuclear Agricultural Research Institute (BINARI) had also been established to build the capacity and fulfil the needs of implementing agencies. Prof. Bosompem also said other institutions such as the Crops Research Institute had developed their human resource capacity for GMOs in terms of knowledge and the technicalities for doing risk assessment.