Burkina Faso puts GM cotton on hold

by Joan Conrow

April 27, 2016

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 (GM) 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 throughout 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 fiber length, the crop can 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 potential harmful pesticides. That meant the farmers who adopted GM cotton used less insecticide, while earning more profit from reduced costs and higher yields.

Last year, Burkina Faso produced a record 707,000 tons of cotton. Two-thirds of the crop was the GM variety, grown by some 200,000 smallholder farmers.

Many of these farmers have experienced a 50 percent increase in income in 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 percent, resulting in cost savings and health benefits for farmers who have less exposure to insecticides.

For nearly a decade, Burkina Faso has been the only West African nation that permits its farmers to grow GM cotton, and the country has profited handsomely from its embrace of the technology. Indeed, cotton has been nicknamed white gold because of its value. Its production directly supports some 4 million persons in rural Burkinabe households, according to Ali Compaore, communications secretary of the Inter-professional Cotton Association of Burkina (AICB).

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 anti-GMO activists claimed?

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 Monsanto (now Bayer) to fully convert local long-fiber cotton varieties to carry the insect-resistant Bt trait. It’s a relatively straightforward, though time-consuming, plant breeding process. In the interim, farmers and cotton companies agreed to temporarily halt the cultivation of GM cotton to prevent the short-fiber trait from becoming more prevalent.

Meanwhile, the 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.

“There is no question, at this stage, to break with Monsanto, much less to challenge the GM technology and the effectiveness of the introduced genes in the defensive system of the cotton plant,” Compaore said. “AICB and all stakeholders in the cotton sector reaffirm their commitment to biotechnology, as that could provide solutions to the current challenges that Burkinabe agriculture in general is facing and those relating to the cotton cropping in particular.”

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 farmers in Burkina Faso and across West Africa.

In any event, the AICB, more than anyone, is aware of the new constraints that this return to “full conventional cotton” will impose on cotton farmers, Compaore said. “That is why it has taken appropriate arrangements to support cotton farmers in the success of this challenge that has to be seen as a temporary setback and not as a definitive abandonment of GM cotton.”

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 in the cybersphere.