Confined Field Trial (CFT) of three genetically modified crops may start next year, according to Senior Research Scientist, Dr. Ibrahim Kwasi Atokple.
Scientists at various Institutes of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research are expecting permits from the National Biosafety Committee to enable them proceed with the evaluations. Seeds for genetically modified rice, cowpea and sweet potatoes are to be tested for essential traits that will enhance crop production in the country.
With on-going global debates over the health implications of genetically modified organisms, parliament recently passed The Biosafety Act of 2011 (Act 831) to legalise importation and research into GMOs. Ghana now joins countries like South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Kenya which are already producing and importing GMOs on the continent.
Genetic modification or genetically modified (GM) refers to the moving of genes between species and varieties using a technique called “gene splicing”, although all methods of breeding modify and exchange genes. Gene splicing is one of the new methods available to investigate life at the molecular level, which are sometimes referred to under the general term “biotechnology”.
Genetically modified organisms therefore, are those whose genes have been altered by transferring into them external genes with desired traits with the aim of enhancing their performance.
The Confined Field Trials of rice, cowpea and sweet potatoes are expected to last for at least three years to allow scientists to critically analyse the seeds’ integrity and be sure the desired traits are inherent in them before being recommended for commercial production in the country.
Lead investigator for BT Cowpea project with CSRI – Savannah Agriculture Research Institute, Dr. Ibrahim Kwasi Atokple, explained, “Each crop has a peculiar problem or problems. The GM-Sweet potato is addressing the issue of malnutrition within the rural folks by increasing the essential amino acids. For rice, we are developing varieties that are tolerant to drought and salinity with high nitrogen-use efficiencies. This research is justified by the fact that most of the rice fields (irrigated and hydromorphic) have accumulated salts over the years thus, forcing farmers to abandon the fields.”
Pod-borer, a key insect pest of cowpea, feeds on the tender stems, flower buds, leaves and pods causing damage to the entire plant. This can result in grain quality and yield reduction of between 30 and 80 per cent, according to experts.
Certainly, this is no good news for cowpea production in the country which already records low yields. As such, it has become necessary to control pest infestation of cowpea by developing pest-resistant varieties.
According to Dr. Atokple, “At this point we are just testing the efficacy of the gene conferring the resistance to the insect (Maruca or pod-borer) in the cowpeas. When we get that, then we cross those that have shown resistance with the ones cultivated by farmers. So a cross between the transformed material and conventional ones is what we are going to evaluate for final release –that is, the old commercial cowpea now with resistance to pod borer.”
The project, is still at the research stage and according to experts, materials will not be commercialised until scientists have ascertained that seeds of the new varieties have maintained the product integrity of former commercial varieties in terms of quality, yield as well as acceptability to farmers and consumers.
Dispelling general perception that GM foods may have some health implications on humans, Dr. Atokple stated quality and food safety was foremost in the entire project and that safety precautions were being taken according to the national and international standards of biosafety regulations.
The several biosafety guidelines and regulations in addition to the Biosafety Act are intended to regulate inflows, future researches and production of GMOs to ensure that GM crops that enter the country are safe for use.
According to the Secretary of the National Biosafety Committee and Coordinator for Biosafety activities at the Ministry of Environment, Science and Technology, Eric Amanning Okoree, decisions on GMO test planting will soon be made since all risk assessments have been completed by the Technical Advisory Committee set up to review three Confined Field Trial applications.
The genetically modified seeds for rice and sweet potatoes are to be imported from the United States while seeds for cowpea would come from Australia.