Despite Health Risks, Many Argue GMOs Could Help Solve Food Security
YAOUNDE, Cameroon, Dec 23 2015 (IPS) – Cameroon is on the path to introduce genetically modified organisms (GMO’s). This would be overseen by the Cameroon Academy of Sciences, in collaboration with the National Biosafety Committee, if the Cameroon Cotton Corporation successfully implements a three-year test cultivation of cotton.
The introduction of GMOs is seen by many as a measure to improve Cameroon’s agricultural yields and guarantee food security, despite health risks.
“Genetically modified organisms will help Cameroon solve many problems which researchers of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development have not been able to solve using conventional selection and cross breeding. It will definitely guarantee food security and safety,” Dr. David Akuroh Mbah, Chief Research Officer at the Cameroon Academy of Sciences, told IPS.
He says though Cameroon hasn’t begun using genetic engineering to modify food crops and livestock, “There are a good number of them which will be modified to increase yield. Some health problems will equally be solved. A lot of drugs and pharmaceutical products are produced by genetically modification of organisms, either plants or animals.”
According to Dr. Mbah, insulin which is required almost on a daily basis by a good proportion of the Cameroon population is now produced by use of bacteria and animals. “If it is done in Cameroon, it would be cheaper,” he said.
To further his point, Dr. Mbah cites examples such as the African swine fever, bird flu and a toxic element in cassava tubers which he says can all be eliminated through genetic modification.
“When we introduce this technology, we would be able to introduce genes that will eliminate the toxins in cassava which is currently being consumed heavily by a majority of Cameroonians. Genetic modification has been developed to eliminate the spread of bird flu virus among humans, while increasing the production of chickens. GMO chickens are more resistant to the virus. A technique has also been discovered to make pigs immune to the African swine fever virus, but this is only done out of Cameroon for now,” he said.
The country held its first national forum on GMOS from September 8 to 10, 2015 bringing together biotechnologists, academics, government officials, businessmen and experts from research institutions to brainstorm and pave the way for an effective introduction of use of bioengineering in the country’s agro sector.
Emmanuel Mbonde, the country’s Minister of Mines, Industry and Technological Development says that participants’ contributions to the forum will later on enable the government to take needed measures to guarantee the security of its economic, social, cultural and environmental space and to make prudent decisions in the face of challenges of modern biotechnology.
A 2014 report by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications, (ISAAA), shows Cameroon is among seven African countries (which include Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Egypt) engaged in test cultivation of GMOs.
Dr. Mbah says besides the forum, Cameroon had already adopted a law in 2003, to control modern biotechnology, genetic engineering or DNA technology and cloning.
“Now that the text of the application for the law has been signed, a National Biosafety Committee has been set up to guide the Ministry of Environment, Nature Protection and Sustainable Development on what type of biotechnology to authorize or prohibit.”
The Cameroon Academy of Science and the National Biosafety Committee would examine applications of private companies vying to use GMOs in Cameroon’s agriculture and livestock sectors.
Cameroon is currently testing the use of GMOs on cotton in three localities in the northern part of the country. The first phase of the testing was carried out in 2012, unannounced to the public. According to Celestin Klassou, a researcher at Cameroon Cotton Development Corporation, cotton produced during the first phase was resistant to pest and disease, and produced higher yields.
“There is a gene which is genetically engineered into the cotton. It is an experimental stage being carried out by the Cameroon Cotton Development Corporation in accordance with the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Cameroon law,” said Dr. Mbah.
He equally notes that the same procedure would be used to improve agricultural production, adding that “people who are protesting against this system have insufficient information. We would not import GMOs from abroad. We will develop them here. However, there is a law which obliges traders to label products in shops so that citizens can choose freely between GMOs and natural products.”
Dr. Mbah also told IPS GMOs would be introduced widely in Cameroon if the three-year-long second phase which is on-going in three localities in the northern region is successful. The cotton corporation also produces edible cotton oil for commercialization.
Professor Vincent Titanji, a Cameroonian biotechnologist and Vice Chancellor of the Cameroon Christian University Institute, reaffirms that the benefits of GMOs are greater than any negative affects they might have in future.
“Remember that fire was discovered. It is both useful and harmful. ICTs are the same. I have been in the domain of bioengineering for over 30 years and none of the predicted effects have materialized. It was predicted that weeds will invade the entire ecosystems of countries like Brazil, the US, South Africa and China which produce GMOs massively. Even the toxic substances predicted, have not materialized,” said Proffessor Titanji.
The bio-technician urges Cameroonians to embrace the technology and master it, in order to be able to make the best out of it, and to effectively and efficiently handle any effects which may come up in future.
He says GMOs have been used on crops like maize, soya beans, sorghum, rice and cotton and that the trials on cotton in the north of Cameroon have proven to be better yielding and resistant to pest.“One or two negative effects such as a possible allergy should not scare people away from biotechnology.
Samson Tetang, Coordinator of a Cameroon-based NGO, Sustainable Society International says GMOs are needed for the development of agriculture and livestock. He however insists there must be a mechanism for bio-surveillance put in place to follow the risks. “Food shortage can be fought through the use of GMOs, but serious health hazards could be registered if no one monitors the plants and animals,”he said.
Marcel Moukend, an agro-engineer in charge of a National Support Program for Maize producers at the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development tells IPS that the introduction of GMOs in Cameroon is not an emergency solution to food crisis.
He argues that there are programs at the Ministry of Agriculture which can guarantee food security.
“In our program, farmers only need to show us their land and we provide maize seeds to them free of charge. We provide natural composite seeds which yield between five to six tons per hectare and imported improved hybrid seeds which yield between eight to ten tons per hectare. There are programs for other crops,” he argued.
Some of the programs, such as a national program to strengthen solanum potato sub sector, was introduced in 2008.
The program aimed at helping farmers increase and maintain a high quality production of solanum potatoes only went functional this year and was effective, according to reports from the agriculture ministry.
The program targets 250,000 farming families in the West, North West, Adamawa, Far North and South West regions of Cameroon.
The Ministry of Economy, Planning and Regional Development launched 9 billion FCFA-worth agricultural programs this year, the programs dubbed, ‘Agropoles’, cover 17 projects which include the production of avocados, rice, pork, soya-bean oil as well as chicken in the Center, West, South, North and Littoral regions.
Emmanuel Mbom, Monitoring Officer at Counterpart International, told IPS that figures from the National Institute of Statistics show Cameroon is a food deficient country where one third of children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Mbom whose NGO is implementing a U.S government sponsored program which provides food to some 74,000 school children in underprivileged regions of Cameroon, insists yearly food shortages are growing and represent a threat to children and their communities.
In relation to the use of GMOs, to fight hunger and poverty in Africa, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which once owned shares in Monsanto, a top GMO producer, states in its annual letter African farmers could theoretically double their yields using new farming innovations such as the use of high yielding seeds resistant to droughts and disease.
It adds that “With the right investments, we can deliver innovation and information to enough farmers in Africa to increase productivity by 50 per cent for the continent overall.”
UNICEF says hunger is a great problem in Sub-Saharan Africa, where Cameroon is found, despite the fact that the region is home to abundant cultivatable land. It says 70 per cent of the population in the region practice farming but ironically the prevalence of hunger is highest in the world with one in five people underfed. Forty per cent of children under the age of five (25 million children) suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition.
But in the face of these nutrition problems, some conservatives and civil society activists in Cameroon still believe traditional methods of farming used over the years can be a solution.
Joshua Konkankoh, founder of the Better World Cameroon NGO tells IPS “GMOs account for a great deal to the loss of food sovereignty in Africa and in no way can become a solution.”
He shares the school of thought that the introduction of GMOs is an initiative of private seed companies to kill off Africa’s seed systems. He equally believes GMOs threaten the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers who rely on recycling seed for their livelihoods.
During the opening of Cameroon’s first national forum on GMOs in September 2015, civil society leaders stormed the venue of the meeting with placards.
Led by Bernard Njonga, a politician and former president of a farmers association, l’Association Citoyenne de Défense des Interest Collectives, (in French) they carried messages suggesting GMOs are cancerous herbicides and a threat to small scale farmers. Dr. Mbah however dismissed their claims, saying that they are not scientific and emanate from baseless presumptions.
While the debate on the introduction of GMOs in Cameroon is still going on with researchers urging farmers to dialogue with experts and understand the initiative before jumping to unscientific conclusions, a study by Dr. Wilfred Mbatcham, a biotechnology researcher, reveals 25 per cent of imported goods in Cameroon contain GMOs.
The Chief Research Officer at the Cameroon Academy of Sciences tells IPS that the National Biosafety Committee is yet to confirm such reports and identify importers of these products.