Feb 22, 2018 Last Updated 2:37 PM, Apr 10, 2017

GM cotton is here but are African farmers ready?

  • Dec 20, 2014
Published in Disease

Even As Foreign Govts And Biotech Firms Push For The Adoption Of Bt-Cotton, Critics Urge Caution, Saying The Sector Has Problems That Must Be Addressed Urgently.


Before we adopt GM cotton, first sort out the mess in the industry African farmers must be most sought after in the quest for genetically modified cotton.

An ongoing campaign, coming after the renewal of the preferential trade agreement under the African Growth Opportunity Act, is harping on improving productivity and profitability of cotton in the continent by reducing dependence on pesticides.

However, critics worry that major issues affecting the cotton industry may be brushed aside.

Among the countries targeted for the adoption and cultivation of Bt-Cotton (named so because it is laced with the toxic-producing bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis) are Burkina Faso, Mali, South Sudan, Kenya, Malawi, Uganda and Ethiopia. South Africa and Burkina Faso are already growing the Bt-Cotton.

Kenya has pledged to start cultivating the crop while in Malawi; a subsidiary of the US biotech giant, Monsanto Corporation, submitted Bt-cotton material for approvals in May. Ethiopia is reportedly reforming its Biosafety laws to create easy access to the genetically engineered cotton and other products. By changing the law, Ethiopia is looking for an opportunity to raise cotton production through the cultivation of Bt-cotton.
“Currently, there is shortage of cotton production in Ethiopia, which imports cotton from Tanzania and China every year,” Dr. Endale Gebre, Director of biotechnology research at the Ethiopian Institution of Agricultural Research, said, adding that “applying biotechnology in cotton production would minimise cost and save foreign currency.”

But as African countries prepare for the cultivation of GM-cotton, they appear to have not only over looked issues raised by researchers and the anti-GMO lobbyists but also ignored lessons from countries such as India, Burkina Faso and South Africa. For example, in Kenya, the Kenya Institute of Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) had observed in a 2006 study that the sector requires home-grown solutions to be sustained since the external factors that support the production of Bt-Cotton may be short-lived.

On their part, farmers groups and the civil society have asked African countries to consider the link between cotton production and the difficult experiences African people have gone through in history.

For example, Michael Farrelly, the programme co-ordinator of the Tanzania Organic Agriculture said the push is reminiscent of slavery in the cotton fields of the southern states of the US, where millions of Africans were bought and sold.

“Now 250 years later, the Missouri-based Monsanto Corporation, the world’s largest producer of genetically modified cotton seeds, has targeted Africa as the final frontier in its drive for world market domination.”
Mr. Farrelly counselled caution because of risks such as increased input costs, huge pest and disease problems, and major loss of bio-diversity and farmers seed sovereignty.
“The lessons of history – from slavery to biotechnology – need to be well understood before this risk-prone and highly controversial technology is unleashed on millions of unsuspecting East African farmers,” he said.

Monsanto hails the technology
But in its website, Monsanto hails the technology saying that by cultivating the GM-cotton, African farmers stand a better chance of eradicating losses caused by over use of pesticides since the variety has in-built mechanism to get rid of the bollworm – a nuisance pest that attacks cotton.

The company also says that adoption of Bt-cotton would help increase farm productivity and economic fortunes of farmers: “Biotechnology-derived crops have contributed to a substantial reduction in pesticide volumes used in production agriculture and have provided economic and social benefits to growers in both developed and developing countries by reducing time and production costs, and inTanzania’s 26% and Madagascar’s 20%. This is interesting because although ginnery operations have been quite low in Tanzania and Uganda, the two countries have been exporting 35% and 63% of the cotton lint required in Kenya. To keep its textile mills running, Kenya is forced to import 80% of the cotton lint required to produce the estimated 225 million square metres of fabric for the mills. At the same time, the country’s 20 vegetable oil processing and refinery firms are hardly satisfied from local supply. Indeed, they produce only about 30% of the national edible oil demand.

According to a 2012 report by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), the decline of the cotton section in Kenya is related to what FAO terms a “monopsony market structure,” reliance on old ginning technology and poor quality seed. The spinners and textile mills are said to have significant market power over ginners and farmers such that the losses borne by the farmers end up as gains for the spinners and millers.

The Cotton Development Authority attributes the decline to periodic drought, volatile producer prices, delayed payments to farmers, lack of access to quality seeds, high cost of pesticides and competition with other farm enterprises over scarce resources. It also says that the collapse of co-operative societies and former state-owned textile firms as well as competition from synthetic fibre and cheap imports of new and second-hand clothes have sent the country’s cotton sector to the dogs. This assessment is largely supported by the World Bank.
“Can such a production scenario be tackled merely through the introduction of Bt-Cotton?” asked Dr. Daniel Maingi, from the Kenya Food Alliance.

Kenya’s potential for cotton production is nothing but great. The FAO report, Analysis of Incentives and Disincentives for cotton in Kenya, says that the country has approximately 384,500 hectares of land available for cotton production but only 10% is utilised while the national production potential for the available land is around 200,000 tonnes of seed cotton.

By comparison, Tanzania’s cotton seed production stood at 245,000 tonnes against Uganda’s 65,000 tonnes. Mozambique and Malawi were producing at 140,000 tonnes and 50,000 tonnes, respectively. Zambia’s cotton production stood at 200,000 tonnes in 2005, a major rise from 20,000 tonnes around 1994.

Zambia’s success story
How has Zambia succeeded in its cotton sector? A report – Zambia Cotton Study – shows that the country’s apparent success was driven by the private sector. After the country liberalised the sector, it went into a concentrated market based cotton production for 10 years with two multinational companies, Cargill Cotton and Dunavant, starting their own market chains.

At the same time, the number of smallholder farmers receiving treated seed, pesticides, and foliar feed fertilisers on credit rose, leading to a rise in yields particularly among experienced farmers. However, the positive turn in fortunes has not been reaching to smallholder cotton farmers whose plantings have been falling by between 40% and 50%.

The current push for Bt-cotton cultivation comes in the wake of a renewal by the US government of the preferential trade agreement under Agoa. This means that the elimination of all duties and quotas on African textile exports to the US market has been renewed. Before the renewal, Kenya and other countries had raised their textile exports to the US by a big margin. For example, Kenya’s textile exports to America reached a peak in 2004 as the country raised $300 million. But reports show that this brought very few benefits to local cotton producers largely because Kenya’s textile industry continues to import most of its factory inputs rather than purchase domestic cotton lint.

For Kenya to spread the Agoa benefits to tens of thousands of cotton farmers, FAO report suggests an improvement in the quality of seed available to the farmers. “Improving the quality of cotton seed available to farmers is a critical issue that can only be addressed through the co-operation of both farmers and ginners, since ginners produce a large portion of the seed available to farmers for planting.”

FAO also calls for both groups “to agree on formal quality standards for cotton seed, which could be enforced by the Cotton Development Authority in collaboration with producer organisations.”

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