Posted: Thursday 8th May 2014 at 15:42 pm

‘Hasten slowly with adoption of GMOs’


The Ghana Public Health Association (GPHA) says Ghana should place itself appropriately to benefit maximally from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), as the technology has a great potential to improve health, nutrition and food security.

It, however, cautioned that the country must move slowly, as the development, testing and release of GMO products must be appropriately regulated. 

“This calls for regulatory structures that ensure that there is no harm to humans, animals and the environment. The current systems in place are not adequate and capable of performing these critical functions,” it said.

This was part of the conclusions and recommendations of a scientific seminar organised in Accra by the GPHA, an apolitical, non-governmental professional association of all interested professionals who have a contribution to make to improve public health in Ghana, to examine the introduction of GMOs into public use and the health consequences. 

  Public debate
According to Dr George Amofah, the General Secretary of the association, the seminar was driven by current public debate on the subject. 

Widespread controversy has been generated worldwide, Ghana inclusive, since the introduction of GM crops, especially after the commercialisation of the products. 

Concerns have been raised over GM crops for a variety of reasons, including ethical, biosafety (environmental impact, health), bioproperty and biopolitics considerations.   

It was in that context, Dr Amofah said, that the GPHA organised the seminar to understand the science behind the technology and discuss its public health implications to inform policy. 

Experts from the College of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences of the University of Ghana, Legon, and the National Public Health Surveillance Department of the Ghana Health Service presented carefully researched scientific papers on the subject, followed by thorough dispassionate discussions.

The presentations and discussions, he elaborated, resulted in the elucidation of the clear advantages and disadvantages of GMOs on health.

  Advantages
A number of advantages and potential health benefits were highlighted at the seminar.  

They are the introduction of pest-resistant, herbicide-tolerant, disease-resistant, cold and drought-tolerant crops with the potential for increased crop yield and reduced use of chemicals and pesticides on insect-resistant plants, which will result in healthier food

Others are improving the nutritional properties of crops to enhance human health through food fortification with desired vitamins and minerals, the use of technology  for Gene therapy (direct use of DNA to treat disease) and application in stem cell research (the manipulation of undifferentiated cells to replace damaged or diseased tissues in the body).

In addition, GMOs provide a huge potential for the production of pharmaceuticals and vaccines which will be much easier to ship, store and administer than traditional injectable vaccines.

  Concerns
Notwithstanding the advantages and major potential public health benefits, discussants at the seminar also identified a number of concerns and the potential negative health impact.

A major concern was that increasing trends in organ disease and GMOs use had been observed. 

“There is some correlation between organ disease, increasing GMO in food supply and glyphosate herbal application, with the possibility of endocrine disruption,” the GPHA noted.                                                           

 Organ diseases mentioned include thyroid cancer; liver and intra hepatic bile duct cancer, hypertension, acute kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, senile dementia, inflammatory bowel disease – Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis and rheumatoid arthritis. 

Though these had not been proven yet, it said, there was the need to keep an eye on the correlation through further observational and epidemiological studies.

Another concern expressed by the GPHA was that current efforts were focused primarily on a few crop/trait combinations that had high commercial value and occupied large international markets, hence were primarily profit driven.

Furthermore, GMOs, it said, had the tendency to provoke allergic reactions, as new pesticide residue effects in the alimentary system might affect gut bacteria, provoking peripheral immune and allergic reactions. 

There is also potential for unpredictable, unintended mutations in the organism, with consequential medico-legal events. 

It was clear, Dr Amofah indicated, that there was the need to enhance local capacity to research the introduction and use of GMOs to put in place appropriate regulatory mechanisms, including particularly the labelling of GMO products and post-marketing surveillance for possible negative health consequences in the long term. 

Furthermore, the appropriate state agency should put in place advocacy strategies to keep the public informed on GMOs, he added.

  Policy options/directions
Touching on the policy options for GMOs, the GPHA recommended that the Biosafety Act (2011), Act 831, which has already been passed, could be maintained and an appropriate Legislative Instrument developed with wide consultations to take care of the health concerns.

Another option, it said, was to withdraw the Biosafety Act, if possible, for review to ensure that the recommendations and health concerns were taken care of or the health concerns incorporated in the proposed Plant Breeders Bill.

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