Genetically Modified crops are seen as a controversial issue in Ghana’s agriculture discourse. As an environmental management person, I beg to differ. At least from the environmental perspective of agricultural sustainability, I opine that, the issues are straight forward. You would agree that on the one hand, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the most topical sustainability and climate action (environmental concerns) issues in the 21st century. On the other hand the agriculture sector worldwide is being propelled by an intensive policy – ex Planting for Food and Jobs in Ghana. In essence, there is a great effort to ensure environmental sustainability in all aspects of development globally, however our agriculture policies are taking a more intensified approach, to increase productivity. From my limited environmental management perspective, these two trajectories are mutually exclusive. The only way to achieve both goals is to avoid the Business-As-usual model in agriculture and use technology as a core component of our agriculture model.
For the purpose of this discourse our focus on SDGs will be on; Goal 2 (Zero Hunger), Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and Goal 13 (Climate Action). The dilemma is – what technology or model can give us the intensification we need to increase production, but equally set us on the part towards positive climate action as a country. This dilemma crystalizes my initial opinion, “the issue is straight forward”, the ineluctable answer is – The GMO model.
The Pandora’s Box is opened! Let me calm the convolution in our minds, it is plain sailing. Let us take a non-technical approach. What is a GMO – it is a crop (seed) developed by engineering the DNA of the crop (seed); to have a targeted enhanced trait such as pest resistance, disease resistance, nutrient efficient or bio fortified trait as a solution, to a problem conventional breeding cannot provide. GMOs are thus, simply enhanced varieties of seeds. In Ghana, the only GMOs under research with the potential of commercialization are Bt cowpea and Nitrogen Use Efficient (NUE) Rice. For the purpose of this discourse, I shall use these crops to advocate for the GMO model in Ghana’s agriculture intensive policy.
The GMO model is simply using an enhanced seed in our Planting for Food and Jobs (PFJ) (intensive agriculture policy), which has the benefit of ensuring the farming practice will be environmentally sustainable. In essence these crops will give us an increased production and will also cut down on the environment footprint and increase the sustainability index of the agricultural sector.
Indulge me, as I substantiate the GMO model; showing how as a country, we can achieve the target of intensive agriculture and environmental sustainability towards achieving the SDGs. On the issue of Intensive agriculture to increase production; data from field trials in Ghana, show farmers could harvest 20 folds more with Bt Cowpea as a result of its pest resistance trait in preventing damage by the Maruca pod borer pest. Field trials in Ghana show productivity in Bt (1925.0 kg/ha) compared with the non-Bt (94.1 kg/ha). Data from field trials (NUE rice line) in Ghana, show farmers could harvest 15 – 30% more as compared to non-Gm rice on a nitrogen deficient soil, which hitherto could cause up to 90% loss of harvest.
On the issue of environmental sustainability the GMO model has shown to contribute positively to climate action. The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) report 2017 data shows that on the average, for every acre of GM farm Vis a vie productivity per acre; we are conserving 0.25 or ¼ of an acre, to produce the same quantity of food a conventional farm would produce. In simple terms, whereas we would need 1.25 acres of a conventional farm, to produce for example 2 bags of maize, we would need 1 acre of a GM farm to produce the same 2 bags. In the case of Bt cowpea as stated earlier; we could save 19 ha of land that would have been used with conventional seed, to produce what a GM cowpea farm will produce on 1 ha. The savings in forested land and the sequestered carbon (in the untouched 19 ha), can go a long way to boost Ghana’s National Determined Contributions (NDCs) towards climate action (Goal 13).
The increase in the use of synthetic chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides), triggered by an intensive policy such as the PFJ as is, can be reduced by a GM model. Intensive application of fertilizers results in the release of nitrous oxide (NO2) a very potent climate change agent. Pesticides and herbicides have volatile compounds that interact with other compounds in the environment, which negatively contribute to global warming. Data from field trials in Ghana show; Bt Cowpea for instance reduces the use of pesticides by 75%. This translates into a high saving on the environmental footprint of such chemicals. Similarly, trials in Ghana show, due to the nitrogen efficient use trait of NUE rice; the need for additional or excess nitrogen fertilizer application is reduced and translates into savings on the environmental footprint of nitrous oxide (NO2).
At the biological ecosystem level, a revealing research by scientist in the Biological Control 130 (2019) Journal; shows that planting Bt crops has tended to result in higher insect biodiversity on farms, than planting similar varieties without the Bt trait that were treated with synthetic insecticides. Bt crops target specific pest and have shown not to have detrimental unintended effects on other insects as compared to synthetic insecticides sprayed on farms. In essence, the environmental and sustainability benefits of GM crops extend to improving the biodiversity of the ecosystem in GM farms, as compared to conventional crop farms.
By this time, I am sure it is evident that my assertion at the beginning is vindicated. The issue of GMO crops is a straight forward one for the environmental sustainability of our agriculture sector. The facts adduced above show that; the most efficient model/technology, to address the two important targets of our agricultural development is the GMO model/technology. Our need for intensive agriculture (increased production) and achieve environmental sustainability; can only be straddled efficiently by adopting GM technology into our agriculture policy.
From the environmental and sustainability perspective, the call for commercialization of Bt Cowpea and NUE Rice will not be out of place. Commercialization of Bt Cowpea and NUE Rice crops should be fast tracked to not only meet our agriculture productivity needs but to improve on our NDCs in achieving SD Goals; Goal 2 (Zero Hunger), Goal 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and Goal 13 (Climate Action) in our agriculture sector.
“The future will either be green or not at all”
By: Enoch Ilori | Project Officer (OFAB Ghana)