During a dialogue on biotech crops and the Big Four agenda at the University of Nairobi On April 24, critics of biotechnology misrepresented the facts about Bt cotton farming in Burkina Faso.
The truth of the matter is that cotton production in Burkina Faso is continuing its downward slide three years after the country phased out the use of pest-resistant genetically modified (GM) cotton. Last April, the Inter-professional Cotton Association of Burkina (AICB), an industry body comprising farmers and other sector players, set a production target of 800,000 tonnes for the 2018-19 cotton season. But the country produced just 436,000 tonnes — despite offering farmers a record $27.4 million in incentives in the form of subsidies on insecticides, fertilisers and irrigation facilities.
The 436,000 tonnes produced represented a decline of 29 per cent from the 2017-18 output of 613,000 tonnes, which was down from the 2016-17 season output of 682,940 tonnes. The decline in production has been consistent over the last three years, much to the worry of industry players.
The figures were disclosed at a media briefing organised by the AICB in the capital city of Ouagadougou to mark the start of the 2019-20 cotton season. Burkina Faso, previously Africa’s largest cotton producer, is now fourth, trailing Côte d'Ivoire (455,000 tonnes), Mali (653,000 tonnes) and Benin (675,000 tonnes).
The decline in production has been attributed to a number of factors, including regional farmer boycotts over unfair treatment, insecurity resulting from terrorist attacks and bad weather. But farmers also blame the situation on increased pest attacks following the government’s decision to phase out GMO cotton and return to conventional seeds.
“Yields per hectare have never been so low,” noted Francois Traore, former president of the Burkina Faso National Union of Cotton Producers. “In my opinion, this decrease is mainly due to the parasitic attacks on cotton farmers and the poor quality of inputs.” AICB Secretary Ali Compaoré told a media briefing that “pests seriously undermined production efforts” over the course of the season.
As part of an effort to deal with increasing devastation by insect pests, Burkina Faso in 2008 approved the cultivation of GM (Bt) cotton, which offers inherent resistance to the destructive bollworm. These pests have the potential to destroy up to 80 per cent of yield on cotton farms.
Bt cotton helped farmers cut down on insecticide spray from an average of eight per season to just three. Overall, GM cotton reduced the use of pesticides by up to 70 per cent, while increasing productivity by about 22 per cent and smallholder farmer profits by an average of 51 per cent.
But cotton processers complained fibre from the new varieties was shorter in length and a decision was taken in 2016 to completely phase out GMO varieties and return to conventional seeds. The industry has not recovered since as farmers lament increased pest infestation on fields has resulted in lower yields, leading to the current plummeting of the industry.
Burkina Faso was for a long time Africa’s largest producer of cotton until it lost that position to Mali two years ago, a development linked with the decision to phase out GMO cotton. The government, cotton companies and farmer groups have announced fresh measures to revive the cotton industry. The price at which processors buy cotton from farmers has been increased by 15 per cent to encourage more farmers to grow cotton this season. The government also has committed $23.8 million to subsidise inputs for cotton farmers. Prices of fertilisers and insecticides are thus expected to drop drastically. The industry has set a new target to produce 800,000 tonnes of cotton in the upcoming 2019-20 season.
Scientists, however, are cautioning that the cotton industry will struggle to recover unless GMO varieties are re-introduced in the country. They praised the successes chalked up by the GMO varieties following their introduction about a decade ago.
According to Dr Edgar Traore of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) during eight years of production of genetically modified cotton, no complaint was made about this technology. The results clearly showed that genetically modified cotton provides better pest control. Producers made a lot of profits and local and even national economies were doing well.
“More and more producers are grumbling and calling for an immediate return of Bt cotton. Farmers' discontent is often followed by the abandonment of cotton production by villages and even entire regions at the cotton belt level,” he said.
But industry officials expressed confidence that the new measures will help boost production.
Lessons from Burkina Faso should shed light on the importance of embracing technological advancements as Kenya gears to commercialise Bt cotton. Anti-biotech crops crusaders should not use the isolated cases to discredit the ongoing research on Bt cotton.
Kenya is on the verge of allowing farmers to grow Bt cotton harnessing the ingenuity of its scientists, and open to investing in new ideas and technologies that have the potential to improve the crop productivity and incomes of smallholder farmers ad their families as the second season of National Performance trials (NPTs) is ongoing.
The Kenyan government, through its Big Four Agenda, is banking on Bt Cotton to create 50,000 jobs and generate Sh20 billion in apparel export earning per year.
Mr Meeme is a development communication specialist and Alliance for Science Fellow (Cornell University, New York).