Ghanaian scientists and journalists brainstorm on Biotech/GM crops for sustainable development

Do you remember this popular adage that: When two elephants fight it is the grasses that bear the consequences?”

Well, journalists and scientists may not be seen to be elephants physically but when they clash ideologically on issues of livelihood, woe unto society. In recent times, there seems to be an increasing agitation over genetically modified (GM) crops, especially food crops globally.

In Ghana, what can be characterised as “Anti-GM Movement” activists are gaining consciousness and if care is not taken to come to some consensus Ghana may be the loser to the detriment food security and sustainability of the country.

On Thursday, 26 May 2016, Ghana’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research Plant Genetic Resources Research Institute (CSRI-PGRRI) organised a workshop for Ghanaian Science and Environmental Journalists at Bonsu in the Eastern Region of the country. The occasion was also used to formally launch what was dubbed as Global Status of Biotech/GM Crops.

Dr. Lawrence Aboagye, Director, CSIR-PGRRI, delivered a thought-provoking address on “The threats to Food Security in Ghana” and the role his Institute could play to save the situation. Professor Walter Sandow Alhassan, Consultant and former Director of CSIR made a presentation on 2015 Global Status of Biotech/GM Crops and launched the event.  Since the workshop was meant for journalists, a Media Consultant Ama Kudom-Agyeman presented the media perspectives, prospects and challenges of Biotech/GM Crops.

In this article the writer does not intend to play to the gallery on the pros and cons of Biotech/GM Crops. Rather, the workshop revealed that Ghanaian scientists are doing a magnificent job in terms of the protection and preservation of some food crops and plants for sustainable development of the country.

Some of the things our scientists are doing to ensure food security for the present and future generations is my concern here.

Unfortunately, it seems to me the efforts of our scientists are receiving little attention in terms of resource allocation to enable them to do more for the nation. It was so disheartening to learn that some of the rare plant discoveries and products created by Ghanaian scientists are not registered for lack of funds for the nation to own the copyright or patent of.

Why? What is our priority as a nation?  I suggest immediately that Ghana’s Parliament must take a critical look at the laws of the land with particular reference to copyright and patent laws. Some specific funds like the District Assemblies Fund must be created for scientific discovery for the nation.

 

BUSINESS

Dr. Aboagye told journalists at the workshop that Ghanaian scientists have made it their business to embark on what is technically referred to as “Collection of germ plasm.”

This is a big word for nothing. It simply means the assembling of a wide range of plant species. It is normally undertaken when field surveys show that a particular plant is being threatened with extinction.

For example, in Ghana those who know “brobe” a kind of big cocoyam that grows very well in swampy areas. This delicious tuber, which can be used for “mportorpomtor” seems to be vanishing among our food crops.

But, now Ghanaian scientists have genetically engineered this food crop so that farmers are going to get the seedling free of charge to cultivate.

This is commendable as far as food security is concerned. In fact,  in the past whenever yam and cocoyam are out of season it was this “brobe” that prevents hunger and starvation until the new yam season emerged again.

And our hardworking women engage in the frying of this “brobe”. School children and adults alike consumed it like no man’s business. Sometimes we Ghanaians take some of our own inventions for granted.

Because I am a layman, I do not want to pretend and use scientific and technical jargons in this article at all. For example, sometimes when we hear words like “genetic” then we jump to conclusion that it’s some chemicals that are pumped into food crops to kill us.

Dr. Aboagye says when scientists refer to terms like “Plant Genetic Resources (PGR) they are talking about those plant materials containing actual or potential values. It has nothing to do with chemicals.

He explains that those are the basic raw materials for “crop improvement today and for the future”. So, according to the scientist, genetic resources of plants could be found in wild and weedy relatives, landraces of plant of pre-scientific agriculture, known as bred varieties, which are no longer in use. So, the advanced varieties that are in current use as well as genetic stocks are obtained through “mutation” or DNA. I am still trying to break down the language for our Junior High School future scientists to understand.

In mass communication, when the student understands you then the Professor will understand you. But if the Professor understands you and the student does not, then you have not communicated at all. This is the difference between a scientist and a journalist. A journalist does not necessarily have to be a scientist to write about scientific matters.

 

WORK

If scientists fail to communicate to the understanding of ordinary man in the street, society will not appreciate the great work they are doing. That is why politicians may allocate some funds for other things while vital research materials are gathering dusts to the detriment of society.

Still talking about germ plasm as explained above, Ghanaian scientists do no only restrict themselves to local environs. They chase other valuable plants particularly to places of origin where broader diversity is envisioned. For example, if they want to introduce materials from other countries to augment their local genetic stock, they have to go there physically.

And in collecting of this vital foreign germplasm, they have to use what is technically referred as “passport data” which is the basic information on the plants concerned.

This can be in the area of agronomy, ecology or name it. Sometimes, they have to adopt local name usage of this plants as well as indigenous knowledge for documentation purposes.

This means that Ghanaian scientists do not underrate or look down upon our own traditional plants. That is why in Ghana there are clinics and hospitals like Mampong Herbal Research Center.

In fact the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology is training doctors who specialise in the application of traditional medicine.

So, apart from food crops like cassava, yams and others, to ensure food security, Ghanaian scientists are also researching, documenting cash crops such as cocoa, sheanuts as well as genetically engineering medicinal plants for sustainable development of our beloved country.

It is therefore, suggested that the nation must make available to Ghanaian scientist all the necessary financial and logistic resources to enable them to contribute to the economic prosperity of our motherland Ghana.

By Mawutodzi Kodzo Abissath

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