By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

Now that it has a new governing board, Ghana’s National Biosafety Authority says it is ready to resume its approval of insect-resistant Bt cowpea, the country’s first genetically modified (GM) crop.

“We will be able to bring very soon to the public domain, cowpea at Tamale,” a major cowpea growing area,” said Prof. Charles Antwi Boasiako, chair of the 13-member governing board, at its inauguration in Accra. “Everything is ready. Like our friends and our sisters in Nigeria have done, we will see a well-regulated biotechnologically modified cowpea coming from the northern part of the country to serve Ghanaians.”

Farmers, seed producers and scientists have expressed frustration over the government’s delayed approval of the crop, popularly called beans, as price of the commodity has doubled since the beginning of the year. The price hike has been partly blamed on pest damage, which the GM variety can resist.

Cowpea is a popular, protein-rich staple crop eaten by millions. But it’s very vulnerable to the Maruca pod borer pests, which can destroy 80 to 100 percent of a farmer’s crop. To control the pest, farmers typically spray their fields with pesticides between eight and 12 times in the 12-week life cycle of the crop.

The GM variety, which includes a gene from a naturally occurring soil bacterium, is resistant to the pest. Confined field trials have shown farmers can reduce their spray regiment to just twice per season while gaining a five-fold increase in yield.

“GMOs, this is what is going on in the whole world,” Boasiako said. “We will ensure it benefits Ghanaians. We will not do anything that goes against the law.”

Dr. Kwaku Afriyie, Minister for Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation, who swore in the board, charged its members to make decisions using science-based approaches.

“Look at the issue backed by science and not by sentiments. Because in my office I know that (there are) GMO-linked products which are waiting for go ahead for the next phase… You have to make sure that biological products are used for the benefit of the country,” he urged.

Noting that is a very contentious issue, Afriyie added: “It raises its head and cools down. But it will never go away. Because as you know, we are using a lot of GM products in this country. In fact, it’s something that must be settled once and for all. So, your onus is to give education to Ghanaians.”

Scientists at the state-run Savannah Agricultural Research Institute (SARI) of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) submitted documents to the authority last January, requesting environmental release of the variety following 12 years of research. But the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) asked the scientists to hold on and re-apply after a new governing board was named, following the expiration of the mandate of the earlier one.

“Now, with the board in place, they can submit,” NBA Chief Executive Officer Eric Okoree told the Alliance for Science in an interview. “The board’s role is to ensure risk assessment is done, the various processes are followed and a decision is taken on that. We have heard about the campaign of some Ghanaian farmers for the release of the Bt cowpea, which SARI has been working on. When the application gets into our hands, we will look at it transparently and objectively and seek public opinion in the decision.”

What next?

SARI scientists have indicated they will soon re-apply for environmental release of GM cowpea. Once the application is submitted, it will take between 90 and 180 days before the authority returns with a decision.

“It’s supposed to be released into the environment,” Okoree explained. “In doing so, we look at the information provided by the application, the risk assessment to be done by the technical assessment committee and then we look at the socio-economic considerations, and then the information provided by the public. That is the transparency side.”

Added Boasiako: “The intention is not to cause any genetic erosion. We will make sure that when we use this cowpea, still our traditional varieties will play hand in hand.”