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Opinions Wed, 21 Aug 2013

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What is GMO?

A small group of people who are members of Ghana's biosafety Committee have very recently decided to authorize testing of GMO crops in Ghana. There has been very little public debate. How can we know if this controversial decision is in the best interests of Ghanaian citizens? For us to make an informed decision, we need to know more about GMOs.

A GMO, a genetically modified organism, is a plant or animal in which DNA is taken from one species, and forced into the DNA of an entirely unrelated species. The two species are ones that could never breed in nature. There are even experiments such as inserting spider genes into goats, hoping the GMO goat will produce milk with spider silk proteins scientists can use to make bullet proof vests. And there are plenty more equally unusual combinations under experimentation.

There are two main genetic modifications that are common in commercial agriculture. One is plants that are modified so their genes carry insecticide to kill insect pests. Generally this is a gene from the bacteria Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis. There are different strains of Bt that kill various specific kinds of insects. And there are various Bt modified GMO commercial crops, cotton, rice, maize, soy, canola, alfalfa, and others. Bt works by paralyzing the gut of the insect, or in some cases causing the stomach to explode. Since the plant contains insecticide, the idea is that no additional insecticides should be necessary. That may be true for a few years. But the insects evolve to survive the poison, and the crops need more and stronger pesticides every year to control the insect pests.

The second main commercial modification of GMOs is plants that are resistant to herbicides. Most of these are resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, which is marketed by Monsanto under the name Roundup. GMO crops that resist this herbicide are called Roundup Ready. Ideally the farmer will spray Roundup on the crop, which will kill the weeds and leave the crop growing untouched. That may be true for the first years, but weeds soon develop tolerance. And new weeds that have natural tolerance start growing, requiring more and stronger herbicides every year. In parts of the US this has become so serious that even large scale farms have had to return to weeding by hand. Glyphosate is now considered a biocide, something that kills all forms of life. Yet when Monsanto began selling it they claimed it is as safe as table salt. They still claim it is safe.

Both of these genetic modifications, the Bt crops and the herbicide tolerant crops are grown in vast commercial fields, one crop, grown the same year after year in the same fields. And year after year they require more and more toxic chemicals. And more of labourers contracted to grow these crops are exposed to highly toxic chemicals.

In true colonial fashion, Syngenta calls the combined area of the countries of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia, where farmers have been forced off their land for endless fields of GMO soybean monoculture, "The United Republic of Soybeans." Syngenta, Monsanto, and the other huge agribusiness corporations are now after the whole of Africa. In East Africa, Kenya is the main target country. For West Africa, Ghana is becoming one of their target points of entry.

In the United States a GMO crop can be sold as food without labelling. A GMO crop is considered safe if it is "substantially equivalent" to the commonly used crop. Substantially equivalent means the new GMO crop does not raise different questions of public health when it is compared to the conventional crop. Supposedly this is established by certain limited tests done by the manufacturer. Even then, the government goes by what the manufacturer says. There is no independent testing. If the manufacturer says the crop is substantially equivalent, it is legally considered substantially equivalent. Such is the power of the biotechnology corporations in the US.

In contrast, in Europe, a key guidelines for introducing bio-tech crops is the "precautionary principle". GMOs are generally not allowed unless testing proves safety. GMO labelling is mandatory.

The biotech companies have fought long and hard, with the help of the US government to convince Europe to accept "substantial equivalence" but have not yet succeeded. Which of these very different principles is best for Ghana? There are other things that should also concern Ghanaian citizens about GMO crops.

The genetic modification process creates new proteins that are absorbed into human and animal bodies by eating, breathing, drinking, and absorbed into the bodies of plants through earth, water, and air. Humans are exposed to these proteins. All proteins have potential implications for the immune system and potential allergic reactions. In the US food allergies have increased enormously since the introduction of GMOs into the diet. And other diseases such as cancers, that develop over time, are also dangers. Yet the agribusiness companies claim there is no problem because of substantial equivalence. Because they own the technology, biotech companies also have a major influence on how GMOs are tested. Not surprisingly, very few scientific test have been done on to determine the LONG TERM effects of GMOs on human health. The agribusiness companies forbid independent testing by contract. So GMO advocates will say "People have been eating GMO foods for years in the US. No one has died from it". This would be laughable if it was not so dangerous. It is very similar to the tobacco companies who said, for decades, that there was no evidence that smoking cigarettes was bad for health. It was difficult to disprove because the effects smoking on the lungs and heart take time to cause death, and vary from person to person.

We should have similar concerns about GMOs. With alien proteins, not found in nature, they can generate secondary effects in the body. They may combine with other chemicals in the body to produce effects that may not show up for years, even into the next generation. It is common sense that if Bt genes in plants can kill insects, there is a substantial risk that if people eat enough food made from Bt crops, over time there can be health effects. We just do not know.

What we do already know is that Bt and chemical pesticides and herbicides damage the soil making it difficult to grow other crops. They affect the many other micro-organisms required to maintain healthy soil. The damage becomes worse over time and the land becomes barren.

Aside from major health issues, GMO seeds reduce biodiversity. GMO seeds are patented. The agribusiness companies, through monopolizing the land, GMO contamination of existing crops, buying up all traditional seed and hoarding it, and selling patented seed, eliminating seed diversity, leave the country with only GMO seeds and monoculture, farming only one crop year after year. The patents require people to buy new seed each year and buy the chemicals that are necessary to treat the patented crops driving farmers into debt.

Monoculture farming leaves crops vulnerable to plant disease pandemics that will wipe out the food and livelihood of entire regions. Seed diversity is the best protection against plant disease pandemics. It is already established that GMO patented seeds drastically reduce seed diversity in a country.

The agribusiness companies and the GMO advocates use "green washing" and "poor washing" to justify GMOs. Exploiting fears of a food crisis with increase in the world population, they claim that new GMO food crops will be more tolerant of drought, or salt, or flood. Supposedly they will have new nutritional components that will save lives suffering from nutrient deficiencies. Supposedly they will be more productive, improve small holder farmer incomes, and save people from hunger. So far none of these experimental crops have been very successful in performing as promised. None have been successful enough to be grown commercially. The agribusiness companies promote these so they can get the Bt and herbicide resistant seeds into a country. We grow more than enough crops to save people from hunger now. Hunger is due to affordability, access, and distribution of food. And the main problems farmers face are not productivity of seeds, but declining soil fertility, land degradation, erratic rainfall, transportation, access to credit and markets, storage, infrastructure and extension support.

Ghanaians need to decide, do we want GMO crops? And is a Biosafety Committee whose members are advocates of these crops, able and willing to protect the biosafety of Ghana?

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Ali-Masmadi Jehu-Appiah, Chairperson, FSG

Mob: 0277776686

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Website: http://foodsovereigntyghana.org/ Twitter: https://twitter.com/FoodSovereignGH Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FoodSovereigntyGhana

Columnist: Jehu-Appiah, Ali-Masmadi

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