Ghanaians may wish to ask, just whose interests does Ghana’s Biosafety Committee represent? Are they interested in safety? Or are they just interested in introducing genetically engineered and patented food into Ghana?
How can we know for sure? One way to assess this issue is to highlight the forces that helped create the Biosafety law that they oversee. Another way is to examine the backgrounds and interests of the members of the Biosafety Committee.
Lets start first with the influences that shaped the writing of Ghana’s Biosafety Law. There is clear evidence that it is a creation based on aggressive guidance from the US Government and the US Embassy in Accra. We know this from observation and from reading leaked US State Department cables. With the influence of the powerful biotechnology lobbies, the US embassies across the world have taken up the key economic task to open markets for the giant corporations who also are major funders of the US political class. We know about their active participation in writing Ghana’s biosafety laws from cable 10ACCRA59, among others. Hillary Clinton stated that in cooperating African countries the US embassies “offered some assistance in drawing up the country plans”. We also know that in Africa, the US has been aggressively pushing genetic engineering, GE, representing it as a weapon against hunger, and a way to cope with drought and climate change.
Why should the US embassy be so interested in helping Ghana in developing its policies for Biosafety? Perhaps there are some individuals in the embassy who truly believe the claims that GE can be beneficial, because it is so widespread in their own country. However, no-one can deny the huge political influence of the biotechnology industry in the US, and how this has influenced the US embassy agenda.
So let’s be clear. “Biosafety” means opening Ghana’s door to genetically modified organisms, the key profit generator for agribusiness. The underlying premise we are being asked to believe is that “what is good for bio-technology companies is good for Ghana”.
Should we Ghanaians really believe this? Let’s look at the evidence. In all the major countries that have adopted GMOs, including the US itself, but also Brazil, and Argentina, large scale agribusiness based on mono-cropping of GMO crops means an industrial mode of agriculture. Agribusiness has created an agro-export economy for commodities and primary goods to satisfy the needs of global markets.
This may generate export earnings for politicians, and profits for the companies, but this is an extractive model of production, which has destroyed the livelihoods, peace and well-being of rural communities. The people who live in its way on family land they have farmed for generations are treated as having out-moded “non-viable livelihoods”, who must ultimately leave their land and communities for the urban slums. They are pushed out of the way by economic and sometimes political forces.
This has already happened in vast stretches of land in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia. through land-grabbing. It is also starting to happen in Africa. There are well-documented examples in Tanzania, Cameroon, Mali, Ethiopia and Mozambique. Those rural people who are left, remain mostly as “contract labourers” serving the needs of agro-industrial corporations. They work as low paid labour, where they used to own their own farms They and their families are often beset by health problems from constant exposure to the chemicals used by agribusiness that saturate the land the water and the air. .
Is this our vision of a “modern” Ghana? Is this the future for agriculture that we want? To those who proclaim that introducing GMOs are in the best interests of small scale farmers in Ghana, do they not see the havoc that industrial agriculture, in which GMOs often play a key role, has created for farm families in other countries?
If by chance, they are not aware of how agro-industial, GMO centric model of agricultural production has affected other countries, let us briefly clarify them here. The main trend is that agro-industrial agriculture ultimately drives the so-called “inefficient” small scale farmers off the land. The displaced rural populations crowd together around the urban peripheries of new super-cities. The consequences of this compulsive urbanisation are marginalisation, social fragmentation, extreme insecurity, hunger, poor nutrition, rising levels of disease. All of this combines to create ever increasing social and political destabilization.
In China, the human suffering caused by this massive shift of peasant farmers to the cities was somewhat mitigated by the availability of export manufacturing jobs. But here in Ghana, can any reasonable person think that there are enough jobs around in Accra, Kumasi and Tamale for rural youth? Is there room for a massive increase in the ranks of those engaged in “ka ya ye” in our cities?
This is only one of the negative outcomes that Ghana’s Biosafety Committee, with its recent approvals for growing test fields of Bt cotton and Genetically Engineered (GE) varieties of rice, is likely to impose on us. For they see these field trials only as the beginning of a much wider program to promote GE corn, cowpeas and sweet potatoes. What do the members of the Bio-safety think is so special about Ghana that we can avoid the negative, social, health and environmental consequences seen in other countries? Do they really believe that what is best for the biotechnology companies, profits, and shareholders is best for the majority of Ghanaians?
Let us now examine the second question. Who are the people appointed to ensure the “biosafety” of Ghanaian citizens and the biodiversity of our mother Ghana? What are their interests? Although there are many calls for transparency, there is not much information publicly available that tells us who the members of the Biosafety Committee are, or anything about their backgrounds.
But we do know that Professor Walter Alhassan is a member of the Biosafety Committee. So let us begin by looking at his background. He has been an active and strong spokesman for genetic engineering, more loosely termed biotechnology. Most of his education and employment have been indirectly funded by Monsanto and Syngenta. He received his PhD in Animal and Poultry Science from the University of Guelph. Multi-national companies like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayor Crop Science, and Semex have set up in Guelph because of the ability to closely interact with research and the ease of access to human, capital, and government resources, as well as the ability to attract investment. Monsanto recruits new staff from among Guelph’s students.
Professor Alhassan received his MSc in Dairy Science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin. The Dairy Dept in the University of Wisconsin has been particularly active in working with Bovine Growth Hormone, which is banned in most countries outside the US. Agriculture at the University of Wisconsin receives a lot of funding from Monsanto.
He received his Certificate of Advanced Studies in Biosafety and Plant Genetic Resources Management from the University of Geneva. The University of Geneva is another hotbed of genetic modification and genetic engineering. University of Geneva Laboratory of Plant Genetics concentrates on research in gene silencing, the basis for genetic modification. They receive significant funding from Syngenta.
Professor Alhassan works closely with FARA, The Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa. He was a consultant to FARA’s SABIMA project and joint author of its report. According to its website, FARA’s science agenda contains 4 work streams. Two are specifically about GMOs, although they usually avoid saying that directly. The FARA Science Agenda includes support for G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition.
Despite its rhetoric of good intentions, the G8 New Alliance initiative is specifically designed to give priority to unprecedented access for multinational companies to resources in Africa. Here is most the telling quote:
“To access cash under the initiative, African governments have to make far-reaching changes to their land, seed and farming policies.”
The Guardian reports: “The new alliance will lock poor farmers into buying increasingly expensive seeds – including genetically modified seeds – allow corporate monopolies in seed selling, and escalate the loss of precious genetic diversity in seeds – absolutely key in the fight against hunger. It will also open the door to genetically modified (GM) crops in Africa by stopping farmers’ access to traditional local varieties and forcing them to buy private seeds.” This is also the agenda of the Gates Foundation and of AGRA.
There is much evidence contradicting the premise that “what is good for agro-industrial and biotech corporations is good for Ghana”. A review of this evidence points to a very different conclusion.
What global agro-industrial complex represents is a modern form of genetically modified colonialism. They are waging an all-out effort, country by country, to control the food supply, and especially seeds. This is the path that the Biosafety Committee is encouraging Ghana to follow.
So what is this evidence? Let us start in Europe. First, let us consider that despite strong and angry lobbying by the US, most of Europe has so far resisted the introduction of GMOs. This already should give us Ghanaians reasons to think. Why are Europeans so opposed to GMOs? Why not embrace all those wonderful benefits being enjoyed in the US and Brazil? Why are GMOs good for Africa and not for Europe?
Secondly, a recent study in Europe shows that the only country in Europe to adopt GMOs, Spain, has already lost significant diversity among its seeds. The other European countries studied have done better in maintaining their seed diversity and productivity.
Professor Alhassan is a charming, well-educated person. We cannot know his true motivation for advocating GMOs for Ghana. But given his background, can Ghanaians really entrust him with our “biosafety”? It is clear Professor Alhassan has a serious conflicts of interest being both an advocate for genetic engineering and a member of the Biosafety Committee.
We don’t have a full list of the names of the other members of Ghana’s Biosafety Committee. We know a couple of the names from articles in the news. The Biosafety Committee was already in place when Ghana’s Biosafety Law was passed. The members were quoted as being pleased because, in their view, it meant GMOs would be allowed in Ghana. Here are two members that were named:
• Professor Emmanuel Quaye, Chairman of the National Biosafety Committee
• Dr Yaa Osei, Member of the National Biosafety Committee.
Both Professor Quaye and Dr. Osei, along with Professor Alhassan spoke with enthusiasm of genetic engineering coming to Ghana following the passage of the Biosafety Act. Professor Quaye spoke to the press about “leading the crusade”.
Clearly, there seems to be similar deep conflict of interest problems among these other members. We cannot look into the hearts and discern the true motivations of these three well educated individuals. However, one can be forgiven for thinking that we Ghanaians are entrusting foxes to guard our chickens!
Ghanaians need to know more about their National Biosafety Committee and their interests. We should be deeply sceptical that the interests of the global agro-industrial/GMO corporations are also in the best interests of small scale Ghanaian farmers. We need be vigilant about how agribusiness money is being used. There is a record not just of lobbying funding research, but also of bribery by Monsanto in Indonesia, Turkey and even in Canada. How can we know the various ways that Monsanto and its allies are influencing scientific or political decisions in Ghana behind the scenes with their money?
Whatever the answers to these questions, Ghanaians are entitled to know. We need a free and open debate. The Ghanaian public, particularly small scale farmers and consumers, not just scientists who are already advocates for GMOs, need to have their say. We need to ensure the well-being of our rural communities, our farm families, our local seeds, our health, and our environment. We need to ensure the biosafety of Ghanaians and the Ghanaian food supply. This is a task we cannot entrust to a small group of GMO advocates on the Biosafety committee.