I said I was going to take a break from writing on development stuff for a while, and technically I have. But this is highly important, and people need to be aware of this, so here goes. I woke up this morning and went online to get my daily doze of global and Ghana news. Head to Myjoyonline.com, and what do I see? “Health Alert!: Will Parliament Succumb to US Pressure?” Always one for intrigue, I proceed to read the article. It turns out the Ghanaian parliament and U.S. Congress are working on passing a Bill known as the “BioSafety Act” which will allow the introduction of genetically modified food in Ghana’s food chain.
GMOs are organisms (food, animals etc) made using molecular biological techniques. And despite what the bill’s name suggests, for many experts these foods are far from being “safe”. There have been numerous reports of people suffering from “mysterious” diseases due to the production or consumption of GMOs. I wrote an article about how GMOs affect the international student population at Mount Holyoke College. You can read the article here.
The proponents of genetically modified food claim that it can help avert a food crisis or starvation in the poorer nations. And that’s why they push for genetically modified food production in developing countries. True, you might increase the ability of your crops to resist disease and bad weather, and you might even be able to grow those crops in more seasons thus increasing your total yield. But these crops are not destined to remain on the field, are they? So what then are the real effects of genetically modified food? I can testify that the results are not as beautiful as they are made out to be. I started college in the US in September 2005 and since then I have noticed a number of changes in my physique. Sure, we have the normal changes as one grows up, but these ones…definitely triggered by something other than just growing up.
The US mass produces genetically modified food, and they are the cheapest foods you’ll find around. Big food companies like McDonald’s use GMOs in their food and so they transmit this food to a huge populace. My college offered numerous food options other than fast food, as it has many dining halls which operate at the same time. However, the ability to pick and choose and plan healthy meals didn’t save me or my friends from the effects of genetically modified food. For one thing, if you’re a girl/woman, you’ll most likely experience some irregularities when it comes to your period. I’m generally an active person, so I usually don’t have painful cramps and what-nots. Until I got here that is. All of a sudden, you have highly unbearable cramps with nausea and what-nots. One of my friends actually gets bed-ridden during her period, and this wasn’t the case when she was back in Ghana. What’s going on here, you ask? Hormonal interference. The artificial hormones injected into genetically modified food messes with your body’s natural hormone system and then you have a whole bunch of problems. Oh, lets not forget the “love-handles”. They are far from loving when you finally have them and figure out what they are. Basically, it’s excess fat that your body has stored, and its usually at hip or waist area. Now there’s one thing when you’ve put on a few pounds in a healthy and even manner. It’s a totally different ball game when you see a skinny girl walking around with huge love-handles. Trust me, it’s not a pretty sight.
You might be thinking this has nothing to do with you. But please, take a moment and think about this. Once this bill is passed, most Ghanaian farmers will probably opt for genetically modified food. Why? Because the US will be giving higher support to farmers who push for genetically modified food. Real, healthy, organic food will become a luxury, that only the rich in Ghanaian society can afford. How am I so sure of this? It’s exactly the same thing that’s happening in the U.S. In order to be guaranteed organic food (which practically all Ghanaians, for the most part, have access to right now), you have to be pay a higher price. Many people who can afford it, and want to eat healthy food, opt for products from Whole Foods, which carries organic food. And trust me, it is quite an investment.
How would the passing of this bill affect the Ghanaian economy? Well, according to those who push for genetically modified food, more people will be fed, which will lead to more people who are able to work, hence increasing the economic productivity of the country. True, that will most likely happen. But not indefinitely, because eventually, the health effects of consuming those genetically modified food will show up. I know that Ghanaians love to chew their chicken bones after some serious fufu and light soup. Once the genetically modified food take-over is finalised, chewing your bones will probably be a thing of the past. Why? Because the hormones injected into chickens are usually put in the bone, so you’d essentially be putting yourself at risk if you decide to go ahead and chew on those bones. Obesity, health disease, cancer etc. There are untold number of diseases emerging every day in countries that use genetically modified food. Trust, those will show up in Ghana too. We barely have our health insurance system straightened out, so who’s gonna pay the cost? You the consumer. And since your entire family is probably consuming the same genetically modified food, its gonna be quite a pinch for you money-wise. Unless of course, you’re just swimming in money. Meaning, the income -divide will most likely widen further, as poorer people channel their resources towards health-care instead of investing in business ventures or reaping back profits.
Another element of this entire thing is the fact that we could possibly be giving away rights to producing some of these foods. Yam, cassava, okro, tomatoes etc. Anyone who can afford it, and is willing, probably has a private vegetable garden in their homes. With the genetically modified food takeover, it might be illegal for you to grow these without first obtaining permission. I’m not making this up (why would I?), there have been cases in other developing countries where people adopted genetically modified food variants of their local foods and have been sued for using food without going through the necessary procedures of obtaining permission. How is this so? Well, since genetically modified food manufacturers add a different gene or hormone or what-have you to a regular tomato (for instance), in order to make it more hardy or increase its yield, they figure they have come up with something ‘original’ and hence claim that genetically modified food variant as their own. Now, should this bill pass, the US will be more than happy to supply these genetically modified food variants to Ghanaians at a cheaper cost than what we currently have. Going by economic logic, the consumer will opt for the cheaper good, hence genetically modified food. Note that the ‘consumer’ in this case doesn’t just mean you and I, it also means our farmers. They might even get the first couple of genetically modified food seeds and what-not for free. And once they plant those seeds and start growing them, the US can claim ownership. No more can you eat a tomato, and plant the seeds. Because essentially, those seeds have been modified and patented, and so, you don’t “own” them. It’s how the system of intellectual property rights works, and I did a piece on the need for awareness on intellectual property rights issues as well.
The final danger is with regards to foreign assistance. In as much as I wish our government would limit how many foreign loans and grants it accepts, that’s not gonna happen anytime soon. Passing the ‘Biosafety Act’ and producing genetically modified food will limit our policy space. Organizations wishing to grant us loans and aid can mandate that we accept so-so and so amount of so-so and so genetically modified food as a pre-condition for getting the loan. We’re just spinning ourselves into a tight web of conditions. We don’t need any more. Seriously. I sincerely hope the Ghanaian parliament looks at the whole picture and the long term effects of passing this Bill, before making a final decision. True, the US operates on genetically modified food but does that mean we have to? Heck, even the US is shifting its attention to organic, healthy, non-genetically modified foods. That should tell us something. And yes, there are other advanced countries which operate on an organic-food only basis. France and Germany for instance. I hope Ghana holds talks with these two countries to find out how they are operating on a Non-genetically modified food basis. We need to quit looking for the easy way out, cos it always ends up doing havoc in the long-run. Instead of looking at genetically modified food, let’s think about overhauling our agricultural sector and getting young people interested in agriculture. That is practically the only feather we have in our cap, let’s not give it away.
There is no shame in being a farmer or fisherman. It is a great honor to help feed multitudes of people. Unfortunately, many young Ghanaians look down upon working in the agricultural sector. There are however, people who are willing to do the work. Like Kofi Annan for instance. He talked about the importance of overhauling the agriculture sector in Ghana and Africa as a whole. Let’s at least listen to these people and give them a chance. I didn’t even know they’d already passed the Legislative Instrument on Biosafety, which allows for field trials of genetically modified food in Ghana. We need to get this information out there so people know what they’re gonna be dealing with. Please pass on. If this bill is passed, not only will we not get to chew on our chicken bones, our children will probably have an entirely new set of diseases to deal with – and we’re barely done handling the current ones.
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.