By Justice Baidoo |
I was raised by my grandparents, who farmed cassava, a starchy tuber crop that dominates West African food.
As subsistence farmers, we needed cassava for our meals at home nearly every day of the week. Occasionally, when we were lucky to harvest more than we could store, my grandmother would sell off the rest. And from that money, we could buy the other food items that we don’t grow ourselves, and sometimes even pay school fees for me and my siblings.
But farming cassava was not, and still is not, a straight-forward business. We were never sure what we would get at the end of the growing season. At the beginning of planting, my grandmother would go to church and pray that the coming season be a good one. That pests do not eat our crops. That the rains would be on time and in volumes that would not cause the tubers to rot. That the sun also shines enough in between.
Sometimes, God listened to her prayer. Sometimes, not quite.
There were seasons we lost everything — to pests, excessive rains or the lack of it.
In August, I spent a few days at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center near St. Louis, in the Midwestern state of Missouri. This was part of the last stretch of my six-month journalism fellowship with the Alfred Friendly Press Partners program. Until about two years ago, when I decided to redirect the focus of my journalism to food security, health and climate change issues, I had a very warped idea of science and what it means for every facet of our lives.
The Danforth Center, tucked away in the western suburbs, employs about 170 scientists from 22 countries who research ways to improve the productivity and sustainability of agriculture, where science and food meet.
At Danforth, I got to know, for the first time, that the reason our entire cassava crop lost sometimes was a result of either cassava brown streak disease or cassava mosaic disease.
These two destroy the edible roots even when rest of the plant above ground looks healthy, or stunt or kill plants outright.
I got to know this by talking to scientists behind the virus-resistant and nutritionally enhanced cassava for Africa, VIRCA PLUS project. By genetically editing the cassava varieties that we currently grow, the project is coming up with a new variety that will not just withstand the deadly pests and diseases but be nutritious too. The VIRCA project on cassava is just one of the many research projects that the center.
But being a genetically modified food, this new variety would have to leap many hurdles and stand years of wait to reach farmers like my grandmother who need them.
Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are still not convinced genetically modified organisms are safe. The long information gap between science and the people — even the educated — has resulted in an information void. Arguments and fear mongering over the dangers of eating “unnatural” food has filled the void. This has driven countries like Kenya, one of the places where cassava-destroying pests thrive the most and one of the countries targeted by this GMO breed, to implement a ban.
Ghana, where I come from, doesn’t have an outright GMO ban in place. But there is widespread resentment among the public and fear among politicians about losing popularity over the GMO issues. The resentment has led to foot-dragging by those who should make the country’s position clear, further worsening the confusion.
I am going to work in Ghana after my six-month fellowship in the middle of September. After hours of engagement with the researchers at the Danforth Plant Science Center on how science could change the world’s food system, even I can not say I am entirely convinced that Africa’s confusion over GMOs is ending soon. But at least I have information — information that should be useful in shaping the conversation as a journalist and hopefully informing the people about the best possible ways to go.