Nuclear research in agriculture is not as scary as it sounds.
“I’m sorry Madam, but the only open field trips are for irrigation and biotechnology,” the clerk at the registration said to me.
“Bio-what?” I asked.
“Yes, Madam, to the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute. You can write your name here,” he finished.
I was too busy thinking to hear the last part of his statement. The first thing that came to my mind was genetically modified food, and I began quickly cataloging what I had eaten since I landed at the Kotoka International Airport for the 6th FARA Africa Agriculture Science Week, and whether there was any remote possibility that it would have been genetically engineered.
Somehow I found my way to the hotel but sleep was not forthcoming. How could it be when all my brain was thinking was “What did I eat that tasted funny? Did it come with packaging? Did I read the labels? All genetically modified foods are supposed to come with some kind of notice for consumer information, aren’t they?”
As I got onto the bus for the field trip on Thursday morning, I could not help but wonder the nuclear aspect of agriculture. Quite often you hear nuclear and the next thing that pops up in the brain is bombs. I had heard before of the Al-Shabaab militia making bombs from fertilizers back home so it was natural for me to think that probably the institute was using biotech to modify the elements of fertilizer to make much stronger bombs. Probably.
We got to the Legon Institute and the chairman of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission was among the people in the welcoming panel. My heart began to race.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the research institute. Let me make this clear: We do not make bombs here,” said Professor Benjamin Nyarko.
“PHEWKS!” I say to myself as I begin to relax and settle in to enjoy a tour of the facility.
What I found most intriguing about the field trip was not the fertilizer that was being made out of compost and human waste, nor was it the gamma radiation technology that was being employed to extend the shelf life of goods so that farmers could exploit more distant markets. Though the technology of using radiation to breed sterile male fruit flies for population control, similar to a successful programwith tsetse flies in Zanzibar some years ago, was quite informative, it wasn’t what most interested me either.
It was the year of the institute’s establishment that really got me thinking. 1963. Five decades exactly. That’s how long it has been churning new technologies to improve the agriculture sector.
“If atomic research were so risky, surely by now several generations of ‘mutated’ Ghanians would have been walking around the streets of Accra by now!” I said to myself.
Even now I wonder how many people at that field visit were going through the same emotional roller coaster that I was on. There is so much propaganda and misinformation about genetically modified foods and the use of nuclear energy in agriculture that is holding back Africa from being the world’s food basket. I hope my companions on the AASW6 field trip had the same enlightening experience, and that ignorance and baseless fear will not keep we as Africans from triumphing over hunger.
“My people perish from a lack of knowledge.” Hosea 4:6
The writer is a Science and Development journalist based in Kenya
First published on the AASW6 blog.