Uganda’s textile industry declines while its neighbors embrace GMO cotton

By Isaac Ongu

July 19, 2018

Cotton, once a cash cow in Uganda where growers aspired to outcompete each other in the acreage covered and income earned, could slowly become a crop of the past if nothing is done to curb the steady decline in its production.

According to data from the Cotton Development Organization, Uganda’s lint production in the 1970s exceeded 450,000 bales. (A bale is 185 kilograms). But in recent years, the highest amount of lint produced was barely 250,000 bales annually, occasionally dropping to 100,000 bales. This past April, the Economic Policy Research Center (EPRC), Uganda’s leading economic research body, published research findings titled, “Developing Cotton by-products in Uganda,” which showed the nation’s ginneries operating at merely 10 percent of their optimal capacity.

What could have brought Uganda’s cotton sector so low, and is there a way out for this once lucrative agricultural subsector?

Downward spiral

The downward spiral in Uganda’s cotton sector is primarily due to the high cost of producing cotton amid competing options. According to the same EPRC study, 40 percent of the revenue gained from cotton goes toward production costs,  compared to 11-24 percent for crops like cassava, groundnuts, rice, sesame and sugarcane.

Uganda’s Cotton Development Organization, a statutory body with a mandate to oversee the country’s cotton subsector, attributes high production costs to several factors. Key among them are inadequate funding for research and technology development to respond to emerging production constraints; the high cost of imported inputs like pesticides and fertilizers; and competition for land and labor from other sectors, which has led to consistent fluctuations in production as farmers opt for other enterprises with lower production costs.

Dominic Etellu, a farmer and former chairman of Soroti District Farmers Association, comes from Serere district, a traditional cotton growing area in eastern Uganda. He blames the decline in cotton production in his area on the high costs of chemical pesticides and weeding.

“Personally, I have stopped growing cotton because it does not make economic sense,” he said. “There are farmers who continue to grow it because of ready cash that comes from its sale. I bet if these farmers costed their labor, they would have already abandoned cotton cultivation.” Dominic says farmers like him, who do calculate the costs, have shifted to alternative crops like groundnuts and sorghum, which are less expensive to cultivate.

The abandonment of cotton cultivation by farmers like Dominic Etellu, and the reduction in acreage by those still growing the crop, has caused Uganda to begin importing cotton products from elsewhere. Uganda currently imports up to 124 metric tons of absorbent cotton, with the lead importers being government agencies, national medical stores and joint medical stores. Uganda is now the continent’s top importer of used clothing, though decades ago it was able to clothe itself.

Region embraces Bt. cotton 

Uganda is the only East African country to witness a consistent decline in cotton production. Though Ethiopia and Kenya experienced the same challenges as Uganda, those two nations responded by embracing cost-cutting Bt technology in cotton cultivation as an urgent measure to revive the sector.

Bt crops are developed through genetic engineering by transferring a naturally occurring soil borne bacteria, Bacillus thuringiensis, into a desired crop variety. The Bt gene provides natural insect pest resistance, reducing the need to apply pesticides. Current crops with Bt traits include corn, soybean, brinjal and cowpea.

Last month, Kenya embarked on nationwide Bt cotton performance trials, which mark the last stage of a 12-year research project before the seed of this cost-cutting cotton is released to Kenyan farmers for commercial production.

Ethiopia, meanwhile, just approved the environmental release of Bt cotton. Ethiopia’s National Seed Approval Committee still must endorse the Bt cotton seeds before they can be grown on plantations and small farms.

Status of GM cotton in Uganda

After 2006, Uganda’s National Semi Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI), with support from Monsanto, conducted field trials for insect-resistant (Bt) and herbicide-tolerant cotton. The trials were planted during the two cropping seasons of 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 in the traditional cotton growing areas of Serere in eastern Uganda and Kasese in southwestern Uganda. Information from NaSARRI shows that the trial that was meant to be conducted in three cropping seasons but was cut short by a season due to inadequate financial support. Preliminary findings from these trials confirmed positive results and the next step was to transfer the gene into Ugandan cotton varieties.

Pius Elobu, a cotton researcher at NaSARRI who managed the field trials in eastern Uganda, attributes the trials’ termination to uncertainty caused by the nation’s lack of an enabling biosafety law. “Results from the field trials showed that the two traits for bollworm resistance and herbicide tolerance were very effective,” he said. “We could not proceed after the field trials because there was no comprehensive biosafety law then, as now.”

Though Parliament passed the biosafety bill last October, it was returned by President Museveni in December with a request to address numerous concerns. Parliament is expected to revisit the bill in the next few months.

NaSARRI, which houses Uganda’s cotton research program, is meant to keep improving existing cotton varieties. Elobu, however, said there is a limit to how far they can go in improving cotton using the current crop breeding tools.  “As scientists, we continue to work for farmers. In 2015 we released a high yielding cotton variety, Bukalasa Pedigree Albar (BPA 2015), but the variety is still vulnerable to pests, requiring farmers to spray three to four times,” he noted.

Even if researchers had completed all of the Bt cotton trials, the reluctance by policy makers to enact a comprehensive biosafety law still would have denied Ugandan farmers a technology with great potential to improve their livelihoods. If lawmakers take the bold step of ignoring the prevailing nonfactual information against GM crops, and adopt a good biosafety law, they could place Uganda right in step with Kenya and Ethiopia – two countries that are on a steady path to reviving their cotton sectors.