In this interview with NKECHI ISAAC, the chairman of Ghana’s Parliamentary Select Committee on Ministry of Environment, Science, Technology and Innovation (MESTI), Dr. Emmanuel Marfo, insists that the continent has nothing to lose by embracing modern agricultural biotechnology and risks remaining an import-dependent continent if she cannot deploy innovative technologies to feed her growing population.
You currently led a delegation from Ghana’s biotechnological space to understudy Nigeria’s achievements and during your opening remarks, you spoke of the need for an Africa-wide parliamentary network to support biotech deployment on the continent. How will this be achieved?
I think if we all come to understand the importance of science and technology in promoting development on the continent, we will have the political will to do what we are supposed to do. That will start with a networking approach where parliamentarians who have oversight over science and technology activities in their countries start talking to each other.
I was in the Nigerian National Assembly to meet some of the parliamentarians for science, technology and the environment and we started talking about that.
So, over the next couple of weeks, we are planning to have an exchange between our committee and the Nigerian committee. Nigeria and Ghana are two leading economies in West Africa and when we start, we will use our parliamentary network to rope in other members of parliament (MP) from other jurisdictions and, gradually, it will take shape.
Food security is a serious concern in Africa and biotech has been tested as a tool that can help Africa achieve this. How can this proposed network help the use of biotech in Africa?
African parliaments can allocate budgets and ensure that biotechnology development budget support goes through to the extent that financial resources are allocated to the executive. If all parliaments take biotechnology development seriously, farmers will have access to improved varieties which can give higher yields to satisfy Africa’s ever-increasing population. Parliaments have a role to play as far as using biotechnologies for food security on the continent is concerned.
Talking about the PBR cowpea, you tasted different dishes made from the improved crop. Is it any different from its conventional counterpart?
I have tasted beans before and what I tasted is the same. I see nothing different between the improved varieties and the conventional cowpea. If the improved variety gives farmers higher yield and improves productivity and income, then we need to embrace and promote it for our farmers. Not only in Nigeria but in other parts of Africa where cowpea is an important component of the daily meal.
What were the lessons learnt during this visit to Nigeria, looking at the biotechnology/biosafety sector?
Well, the main lesson learnt is that when a country has political support to do something that delivers a tangible product that helps people, that project will succeed. In many cases, we don’t succeed in several things we do because we don’t get the needed political support. Upon my visit to Nigeria and talking to all the authorities and my colleagues in the National Assembly, it is clear to me that the political support to get the relevant agencies working on this project helped a great deal. So, for me, that is probably the greatest lesson that I have learned.
How do you think what you have learned here in Nigeria can help facilitate your process in Ghana?
As a country, we are on course. Ghana took the lead in this endeavour but, somehow, didn’t run at the speed that Nigeria did. The lesson I am taking along is that we need to be focused, work through the processes and ensure that we approve the commercial use of the improved variety so that farmers can access it and it will be on our farms for increased productivity.
Funding is a major problem in scientific research and innovation. How can the proposed network ensure that sustainable fund is allocated for research?
As a continent, we commited under the Lome Agreement to, at least, commit 1 per cent of national gross domestic product (GDP) to the promotion of research and development. That commitment rests with the parliament, to ensure they provide effective oversight and insist that the national government brings the budget to the parliament that has that allocation. So, [progress is made] when we have a network of MPs who are interested in the use of science and technology to accelerate our development. If Ghana insists that government budgets 1 per cent of her GDP for scientific research and Nigeria, South Africa and other member countries do the same, that momentum will translate to real commitment from the respective governments.
Also, the network will intensify advocacy for the budgeting for science in our various countries.
Ghana is making giant strides like Nigeria. Are there lessons here for other African countries?
In terms of science and technology, the lesson for other countries is that we have gradually increased the budget for science and technology in our country. We have decentralised research to about 15 research institutes, each focusing on a particular area [like crop research, cocoa research etc.]. I think the lesson in there is that we need to decentralise research. I think Nigeria is doing the same. In this sense, Ghana and Nigeria lead in creating a scientific research infrastructure that makes institutes more focused on their delivery.
Also, we have a strong legislature that pays attention to science and technology. In some African countries, science and technology are hiding behind some sectors/committees and that does not help their parliaments focus on that subject matter. Every parliament should create a separate committee on science and technology that can focus on making sure that the executive pays attention to the development of research.
Does Africa have anything to fear in embracing modern agricultural biotechnology?
We have nothing to fear. Sometimes, you have to understand that biotechnology techniques bring about competition in the market/trade sector because people who have been importing fertilisers or have some existing varieties that they are profiting from will not accept newer varieties. So, it is a trade war. In terms of safety, however, many people travel outside the country. For instance, most of the food consumed in the United States of America are modified genetically. Genetic modification only ensures that you produce a variety with superior qualities that fights against certain diseases or weaknesses in existing varieties. Africa has nothing to fear. If we can feed our increasing population, we need to employ biotechnology, otherwise we will continue to be a net importer of food which will affect our balance of trade and currencies negatively and retard our development.