Swaziland (eSwatini) finds success with GMO cotton

By Nkechi Isaac

June 6, 2019

The chief executive officer of the Swaziland Cotton Board is urging African leaders to put their political egos aside and support agricultural biotechnology in the overall interest of their people.

Dr. Daniel Khumalo, in an exclusive interview with the Alliance for Science, discussed the country’s recent success with genetically modified (GM) cotton as he underscored the importance of adopting technologies that can improve productivity on the African continent. He also emphasized the need to embrace biotechnology as a way to achieve food sufficiency.

“I will advise countries to review their legislations in order to benefit from products of modern biotechnology,” he said. “To those with accommodating legislations, I want to urge them to put their political ego aside and think of the poor African farmers who are striving in the field with old age technology when the world has invented new technologies that would benefit them.”

Khumalo also noted that “Africa will never be food secure until the continent adopts technologies that will improve production. GM technology is one solution Africa needs to consider.”

Swaziland, also known as the Kingdom of eSwatini, is a landlocked country in Southern Africa that has more than 10 per cent of its 1.4 million inhabitants actively engaged in farming. Khumalo said his country’s decision to embrace biotechnology and GM cotton has enhanced its fortunes.

His comments came as Nigeria has approved the release of GM cotton and cowpea and Kenya is conducting National Performance Trials on pest-resistant GM cotton varieties and considering a repeal of its GMO ban.

Cotton has a long history in eSwatini, serving as a source of livelihood to over 50,000 Emaswati. The country’s richest people used to be cotton farmers who owned cars, tractors, good houses, had their children in private schools and even bought cows with the money from cotton, he noted.

However, drought and a drop in the price of cotton crippled the industry, leading to the subsequent shutdown of ginneries, he said. The greatest blow to the country was the closure of a cotton ginnery in eSwatini that had a 25,000 metric ton ginning capacity and employed 500 people.

The kingdom started looking for other options due to the unique nature of its environment, which is prone to drought in regions where cotton farmers reside, Khumalo said. He described the situation as very difficult, especially considering that neighboring South Africa had been planting and enjoying the benefits of GM cotton since 1998.

Taking a cue from South Africa, eSwatini moved to adopt regulations that would allow it to apply biotechnology. The kingdom passed the Biosafety Act in 2012 and finally released its first GM product, Bt cotton, in 2018, he said.

In sharing the country’s experience since the introduction of GM cotton, Khumalo pointed out that the farmers who are the direct beneficiaries of the product were ecstatic and very receptive of the technology.

“Farmers are happy with GM technology because of the benefit,” he said. “It has improved the profit margin as it eliminates over 10 [insecticide] sprays per season.” It also offers higher yields.  “All cotton farmers are ready to plant GM in eSwatini, the reason being that they have done conventional cotton and have recorded numerous losses. Also, farming is mostly done by old age people who have no energy to carry a sprayer around the field.”

Khumalo also noted that in just the single season since GM cotton was introduced, “it has been able to double the ginnery consumption, meaning production has doubled by only planting additional 250 hectare of cotton under irrigation.”

Listing the economic benefits of the crop, he maintained that apart from resuscitating the nation’s textile industry, it has improved productivity, created jobs and is contributing to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

“There is obviously going to be more economic benefits from GM,” he said. “The ginnery throughout has doubled from 750 tons to 2,000 tons this season only from increasing the [cultivation] area by 250 hectares. Secondly, the ginnery has employed 120 seasonal workers who will have a job for the next three months. Furthermore, the lint that is produced by the ginnery is consumed locally by our spinners who are expected to increase the employment from 850 to 1,400 this season.

“All that is cotton putting money to the pockets of Swazis,” he continued. “The spinners further supply textile for weaving and fabric in eSwatini to supply the market for the African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA). Lastly, all the companies are paying tax to the eSwatini government.”

Linda Msibi, a farmer and manager of Nisela Bt Cotton Farm in eSwatini, confirmed Khumalo’s account, saying Bt cotton holds great potential for farmers in the region.

“In this area, we are sugarcane farmers but because of the drought we thought of diversification,” Msibi recounted. “So we were looking to grow other crops that can actually withstand the drought seasons. So we thought that by planting Bt cotton, we can offer the community here the opportunity to come and see this technology. In 2017, we approached the Swaziland Environmental Authority for the application of a permit to introduce Bt cotton, but we were actually granted the permit in 2018. So it took us about 15 months to get the permission to actually import the variety.

“We planted on Nov. 15, 2018, and up to now we have only done one spray for pest and disease control,” he added. “Up to now we have not had much challenge, especially on pest control. We have planted about 5Kgs [kilograms] per hectare and in terms of returns, we spent about SZL15,000 per hectare and we expect a return of about SZL 30,000 hectare if everything goes well, which is our wish.”

Bongani Nkhabindze, the eSwatini Environmental Authority’s regulator, said that while the law does not restrict the technology, it does lay down regulations that must be complied with.

“The Kingdom of eSwatini regulates all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) through the Biosafety Act 2012,” he said. “The act does not restrict the use of GMOs, neither does it allow their unregulated use, but it outlines a clearly laid out guide which stakeholders should follow when they want to handle, use or transfer GMOs in the kingdom. The act actually embraces the technology, but with precaution.”

He noted that Bt cotton was introduced in the kingdom during the 2018/19 growing season, which in eSwatini runs from October to April. The introduction followed two seasons of trying and evaluating the GM hybrids against the locally available non-GM varieties.

Dr. Olalekan Akinbo, senior program officer/biosafety for NEPAD/ABNE (African Biosafety Network of Expertise), said the organization worked with the eSwatini Environmental Authority in the area of regulatory capacity building and also facilitated external trainings and seeing-is-believing study tours for the office. All of these activities helped the regulatory agency enhance its competency in best practices, including dossier review.

In regard to facilitating trade, Dr. Getachew Belay of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) said his organization had given its full support to interested member-states to adopt agricultural biotechnology, contending that the case of Sudan made it clear that cotton production would have stopped there if not for Bt cotton. COMESA’s long-term objective is to facilitate trade of biotech products through a harmonized regional regulatory system, he added.