HEY, WAIT! WHAT’S THIS ‘BIOSAFETY’ ACT ABOUT?
By CAMERON DUODU
Ghana now has a “Biosafety Act”. A law bearing that title was given the Presidential Assent on 31 December 2011. It had apparently lain before Parliament for four years before it was passed.
Our Ghanaian media, preoccupied with political exchanges of an insulting nature, didn’t cotton on to the fact that this law might pave the way for Ghana losing control of much of its its agricultural production. Whatever arguments were rehearsed in Parliament four years ago are, of course, now lost in the empty vaults of arcane boredom. For who can recall what he or she personally did four years ago, let alone the filtered remnants of a convoluted debate in Parliament on genetically modified crops?
I shall therefore not attempt to go into the origins of the Biosafety Act 2011 (Act 831) and how it crawled through Parliament. What is undeniable is that it must have passed into law in Ghana with the encouragement of outside influences. Probably, food aid was dangled before the eyes of our MPs to make them believe that if Ghana ever expected to benefit from food aid — especially from the United States –, then it was in the interest of Ghana to enact such a law.
The Act sends shivers of fright right through me. For what its 28 pages of legalistic expressions hide from the man in the street is that from now on, international agribusiness organisations may be able to sell genetically-modified seeds for crop cultivation in Ghana. They may also be able to sell food crops harvested from genetically-modified plants, for consumption in Ghana.
Now, genetically-modified crops do not necessarily harm human beings, though their contribution to allergies in humans is a new phenomenon still being studied. What is undisputed and truly fearsome is that they can cross into the natural environment of a country and interact with, or contaminate its own indigenous crops.
One agribusiness organisation has faced a great deal of hostility in India because it tried to experiment with rice-growing, in a country where rice is the staple food. Indian farmers quickly came to realise that whilst the rice grown by the organisation indeed provided a bigger harvest than native Indian rice, its seeds could not be used for planting in a new season. This meant that the organisation was trying to turn rice-growing on its head.
For normally, a farmer grows rice with seed which produces rice, some of which can be eaten and some of which can be stored for planting in the next season. But with the type of genetically-modified rice taken to India, the harvested rice seed was STERILE and could not be planted. So, each season, the farmer would have had to go to the agribusiness that supplied the seeds, to buy new seed for planting. A farmer who did not have adequate cash would thus be ruined. And many farmers in India are dirt poor — so poor in fact that they have to borrow money from money-lenders at usurious rates to buy seeds. When drought or some other natural disaster strikes and deprives them of a harvest, they become so desperate that many kill themselves.
Now, some Indian farmers would probably have agreed that in a democratic country, people had the right to use seeds of their choice. But the fact was that if one’s land was close to a plot on which GM crops were planted, one’s own crops would AUTOMATICALLY be cross-pollinated with the GM crops, and thus produce sterile seeds like the GM crops.
To Indian farmers, this was worse than formal, politically-imposed imperialism. If one or two agribusinesses were allowed to sterilise the Indian rice-growing countryside by killing off Indian rice seeds and making it impossible for Indians to grow Indian rice on Indian soil – leaving Indian farmers to purchase agribusiness rice seeds or starve – then what future did Indian agriculture have?
Suppose in one season, the agribusinesses overpriced their rice seeds so highly that the Indians couldn’t buy it? Suppose the agribusinesses became so powerful the world over – having eliminated all rice seeds apart from their own – that they did not find it necessary to take account of the purchasing power of poor farmers in India or other developing countries? The answer, provided by Americans with a touch of dark humour, was that “Terminator Technology does not take prisoners!” Indeed, the technology for sterilising GM seeds so that they could not be planted, became known as “terminator” technology.
Although the agribusinesses have striven to deny that they want to monopolise agriculture, their formulations remain suspect. If they did not have a bad motive, why did they evolve – and attempt to market – terminator technology commercially? How can the control of global food production affect global politics? Won’t a country that controls the world’s seeds control the world’s food supplies and won’t such a country hold every other country to ransom if it is ever ruled by a mad dictator or an extremely unpleasant right-winger like Barry Goldwater?
These are some of the considerations that have made Indian farmers go to the extent of burning GM crops wherever the agribusinesses, with the connivance of rich farmers and corrupt politicians, attempt to introduce them. There have been similar cases in Brazil (where GM soya growing has become a major enterprise) and even in some European countries, including Hungary.
Right now in Britain, a strong scientific lobby group is threatening to destroy a plot which an officially-backed research body wants to use to cultivate wheat that has been genetically modified to kill weevils that try to eat it. No-one can deny that weevils are a menace to grains of all sorts. But if the weevil-killing wheat takes over the countryside, all Britain’s wheat output could be affected. The danger of that is that European laws would prohibit the importation of British wheat into other European countries.
The British anti-GM group is also on very strong ground, because it has been proved that a crop called “rape seed”, which was genetically modified and allowed to be planted in some areas of the British countryside for experimental purposes, has now taken over the “rape seed” crop nearly completely. “Cross-pollination exists”, it has been established. But the British group is so reasonable that it says it will not oppose the experimental planting of the GM wheat, if the wheat is first tried on animals like mice.
Yet so strong and adamant is the GM lobby that the researchers want to go ahead with the experiment anyhow.
What is most frightening about the GM movement is that it uses all the weapons of modern politics to promote a campaign which should be led by objective science. The agribusinesses purchase politicians and journalists whom they feed with ‘information’. They organise legislation in favour of allowing GM foods into countries’ food chains. And because scientific information is so difficult to assimilate, the agribusinesses succeed in propagating a very simple message, namely: that the world population is rising fast; food production for the billions being born is not going up adequately to meet demand; water resources are diminishing in many areas of the world; so we urgently need crops that produce a more plentiful harvest; plants that can resist disease and pests more effectively; and plants that need less water to grow and produce a healthy harvest.
What they don’t talk about is how these lofty objectives can be achieved without creating a disaster in the countries where such methods are introduced.
In Ghana’s particular circumstances, we must ask ourselves: if our Environmental Protection Agency has been unable to prevent mining companies and galamsey operators from ruining the drinking water of important towns like Kyebi and the environment of many other towns and villages; if our Forestry Department, with all the powers it possesses, has been unable to protect our forests from being destroyed — to the extent that we are now apparently thinking of importing wood from Cameroon (!); if our food and drug administrators have never been able completely to eliminate the importation of unwholesome food and counterfeit drugs; then what hope do we have that we can safely police the introduction of genetically-modified plants into the country?
The Biosafety Act 2011 may have been given the presidential assent. But it should be allowed to die quietly on the statute book. Meanwhile, our research organisations should continue to monitor all the practices of agribusinesses and NGOs allowed to work in our countryside, and whenever they see experimentation going on that contains potential, inherent dangers, name and shame the organisations, and thereby ensure that we retain control of the way we plant grains, yams, cocoyam; cassava, vegetables and fruits.
We shouldn’t listen to those who think that every scientific achievement brings“progress”. When I was younger, I used to love apples. Today, I cannot eat apples. Something has been done to them in the growing and harvesting process that
makes it practically impossible for them to rot. But that “something” does not agree with me! So I can’t eat apples any longer. Ditto pears. And although I can still eat Ghanaian bananas and enjoy them, I cannot eat the bananas sold in British shops, which have had “something” done to them before they arrive in the UK.
How come they were able to do things to these fruits that do not agree with certain people? Whilst discussing the new law on the Internet, a forum member in the US wrote that he tries to grow certain plants in his garden but they never sprout! “The seeds come nicely packaged! But is something wrong with them? I have stopped trying to plant anything!”
In the mystery lies the danger. People are making billions of dollars toying with the world’s food chain. If we are naive, we shall praise them for ‘advancing’ the science of crop management. But if we are cautious, we should yell: “HEY” WAIT A MINUTE! Do you want to throw away the baby with the bath-water?”