By Joan Conrow
Mark Twain, the 19th century American author, famously quipped: “This report of my death was an exaggeration.” Much the same could be said of Burkina Faso’s genetically modified cotton crop.
Activists opposed to GMOs recently claimed that Burkina Faso had “abandoned” insect-resistant GM cotton, a move that supposedly spelled doom for biotechnology in Africa. But reports of GM cotton’s death are also an exaggeration.
GM cotton in Burkina Faso has in reality been a runaway success for local farmers, and with new improvements in the pipeline to fix an issue with fibre length, the crop will continue to provide much needed extra income for smallholders keen to emerge from poverty.
GM cotton was commercialized in Burkina Faso in 2008. As has happened elsewhere in the world, it rapidly gained popularity with farmers because of its ability to resist the devastating bollworm pest without the use of expensive and environmentally damaging pesticide sprays. That meant the farmers who adopted GM cotton used less insecticide, while earning more profit from reduced costs and higher yields.
Currently, some 200,000 Burkinabe smallholders grow GM cotton. Last year, the country produced a record 707,000 tons of cotton, two-thirds of which was the GM variety.
Many of these farmers have experienced a 50 per cent increase in income over recent years, allowing them to improve their quality of life. “I bought a tractor,” said M. Zongo Faroukou, a GM cotton farmer in Ouarkoye. “I bought motorcycles for my kids. I built shops for my kids.”
M. Tamini Mave, who also grows GM cotton in Ouarkoye, said the insect-resistant variety has allowed him to reduce pesticide use by 60-80 per cent, resulting in cost savings and health benefits for farmers like him who are no longer exposed to potentially toxic insecticides during application.
For nearly a decade, Burkina Faso has been the only West African nation that permits its farmers to grow genetically modified cotton, and the country has profited handsomely from its embrace of the technology.
While yields — and profits — have been impressive, an issue recently erupted when cotton companies rejected some of the GM crop due to its fiber length — something the anti-GMO activists latched onto and tried to inflate.
Cotton companies prefer long cotton fibers that are around 27-29mm in length. But the GM cotton grown in Burkina Faso tended to produce shorter fibers, around 25-27 mm long. Did this perhaps indicate a failure of genetic engineering technology, as the NGO activists endeavoured to suggest?
Actually the issue is basic crop breeding, unrelated to the genetically engineered traits. When the insect-resistant traits were bred into the regional cotton varieties that Burkinabe farmers prefer, genes conveying a shorter cotton fiber length were retained from the local varieties. Over time, the proportion of short fibers outpaced the longer fibers that cotton mills desire.
Burkinabe researchers are now working with agricultural firm Monsanto to fully “convert” local long-fibre cotton varieties to carrying the insect-resistant trait. It’s a relatively straightforward, though time-consuming, plant breeding process. In the interim, farmers and cotton companies agreed to temporarily limit the cultivation of GM cotton to prevent the short-fiber trait from becoming more prevalent.
Meanwhile, the Inter-professional Cotton Association of Burkina (AICB) has sued Monsanto for 48.3 billion CFA francs ($83.91 million) to recover losses from the short-fiber cotton. The two parties are currently in negotiations.
Total biotech cotton acreage in Burkina Faso is now estimated at about 50 per cent down from the previous high of 73 per cent, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture – hardly an indication that the country has ‘abandoned’ GM cotton or biotechnology generally. Indeed, Burkina Faso is currently conducting field trials on the next generation of GM cotton, as well as insect-resistant maize (corn) and cowpea.
These biotech crops will also provide protection from destructive insect pests, without repeated applications of expensive and potentially hazardous pesticides. And that translates into economic and environmental benefits that can be enjoyed by Burkinabe and other farmers across West Africa.
This fiber-length episode underscores the importance of ensuring that plant breeders incorporate the traits and qualities that both farmers and millers prefer. It also reminds us that biotechnology is enhanced when it is followed up with conventional breeding that is informed by local stakeholders, and accompanied by outreach programs to educate farmers on proper use of the technology.
Though GMO critics are eager to spin events to support their opposition to biotechnology, the reality in Burkina Faso is quite different than what has been presented online.
In the real world, all plant breeding tools are needed to ensure that farmers, especially small shareholders, have access to seeds that allow them to succeed.