Ghana can contribute to feed the world — Sir Brian Heap

A professor of biology, Sir Brian Heap, has advised Ghana to position itself as a major producer of food crops to the rest of the world by taking advantage of its arable land to do large scale agriculture.

According to him, by doing so, Ghana will not only be self-sufficient in food production but a net exporter, a position which can also help ensure trade balance.

“Ghana is in a unique position to contribute to the world because food demand is going to grow two fold in the next 50 years. So we need to produce more food on the land we already have available in abundance,” Sir Heap, the president of the European Academies Science Advisory Council and a Research Associate at the Centre for Development Studies, Cambridge UK, told the Graphic Business in an exclusive interview.

There are reports which indicate that in the next 50 years the global population is going to go up by another two billion.

According to the Word Food Programme, there are already 850 million people we cannot feed, a situation which raises the question about how to feed an additional two billion in the next half a century on top of the 850 million.

While some are advocating the use conventional means to increase food production to be able to meet the growing demand for food all over the world, others are vehemently against any such practice, particularly the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in food production.

But Sir Heap who is also the head of Biosciences for Farming in Africa (B4FA) is of the view that “conventional plant breeding will be essential” if Ghana is to position itself to leverage the impeding situation at hand.

Conventional agriculture
Conventional plant breeding refers to the method of growing edible plants (such as fruit and vegetables) and other products.

It is opposite to organic growing methods which attempt to produce without synthetic chemicals (fertilisers, pesticides, antibiotics, hormones) or genetically modified organisms.

Conventionally grown products, meanwhile, often use fertilisers and pesticides which allow for higher yield, out of season growth, greater resistance, greater longevity and a generally greater mass.

Sir Heap is of the view that if Ghana has large acres of arable land, then that should be “good news for the world because it opens up a huge opportunity not for Ghana only to develop conventional plant breeding and use conventional technologies in food production but also move to areas of recent development.”

Ghana in its quest to move agriculture to the next level is in the process of passing a bill dubbed “The Plant Breeders Bill” to, among other things, protect and encourage plant breeders to do more for the agricultural sector.

Although the government has come under a barrage of criticisms for introducing the bill in Parliament, Sir Heap is of the view that the move rather “puts you in a strong position.”

Introducing GMOs in Ghana
Among others, the introduction of GM foods is to increase crop yield.

In Ghana, many wonder why the need to introduce GM foods because there is evidence that, a chunk of the food produced in the country already go waste.

Against this background, they are of the view that more food will go waste if measures are not put in place to ensure that the harvested crops leave the farms to the market place.

In the Western, Ashanti and the Northern regions in particular where foods in grown on a large scale, most of the farms do not have access roads to enable the trucks to easily cart the food to the areas where there is demand.

“It is essential that we don’t consider GMOs in isolation because it will be a disaster”, Sir Brian said.

“It has to be considered in the context of other things such as infrastructure so there has to be good transport systems, there has to be systems to provide information to the farmers as to how to grow these things and what modifications they need to make to their management systems”, he added.

Sir Brian said “So it’s important to look at this in a holistic way and not simply isolate biotech.”

He admitted that GMO not a silver bullet it’s part of a number of tools that can be used to increase food production to meet the growing demand presently and for the future.

Why opposition to GMOs
Sir Brian explained that “sometimes it is because people think there is something strange about the GM plants.

We have to remember that with conventional plant breeding which people have been doing for many hundreds of years by crossing one species with another or crossing one variety with another to produce a hybrid, for example. What happens is that huge numbers of genes are transferred to hundreds of thousands of genes and in some cases parts of chromosomes.”

He noted that “now the step taken is a much more precise way to know the genes you are transferring and the nature of it and where it is likely to go and the effect it will have.” He added: “So there is some misunderstanding about what genetic engineers are trying to do. Some think it’s strange because it might produce some strange mutation type products of something we have never seen before.”

“But we need to understand that with conventional plant breeding it takes years and years, 10 years or so by repeated crossing or selection to get the plant you want,” he said.

Sir Brian further noted that “With genetic engineering, there is a huge amount of testing that has to go into it to ensure that it is absolutely safe and it is the plant you want at the end of the day.” He also indicated that “in that sense there is not much difference between the two techs and as I said there is a lot of misunderstanding and a lot of people are giving wrong information about the process.”

How to change negative perception
According to Sir Brian, it is the duty of scientists to explain more about what they are doing so people can understand and also be able to explain to the lay public who do not have any science training.

It is expected that the proponents of the idea will engage in a more massive campaign to explain the issues to the understanding of all so that people can make a case for or against GMOs using facts, rather than conjectures.

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