The push for the introduction of genetically modified cotton has intensified in Kenya in the last few months. The GMO proponents are promoting Bt cotton as a crop for fibre and textiles only. However, as it has been done in other countries, only 40 percent of the Bt cotton will be for textile production.
The larger 60 percent of the Bt cotton will be extracted as cotton seed oil, cotton seed cake and straw for animal feeds. From this, we can see a greater percentage of the Bt cotton will end up in the food chain – for human consumption.
The supporters argue that tests done on these crops have ascertained their safety on humans and the environment, a claim that is factually erroneous going by the inconclusive scientific findings of studies on GMO safety.
Studies in France have shown that contrary to popular beliefs that are pushed by the giant multinationals promoting the genetically engineered Bacillus Thuringensis, the Bt does not integrate naturally in the environment but has been found in water and the environment as much as 30 years after use.
Bt cotton is being presented as the panacea for the revival of the textile industry but was poor quality seeds the reason for the collapse of the cotton sector in the 1980s?
The answer is no – the reason was the mismanagement of the ginneries leading to the farmers not getting paid for their deliveries of cotton. It was never about the conventional cotton seeds that were in use then.
When Burkina Faso introduced Bt cotton in 2008, the cost of the seeds was dramatically high, beyond the reach of a small-scale farmer. In practical terms, while the conventional variety is sold for Kshs. 121, the Bt cotton seed equivalent would go for Sh4,500 for an equivalent quantity.
In other words, the new cost was a whopping 37 times more expensive.
When you lift the veil on the cost breakdown, you discover that the multinationals controlling the Bt cotton seed get 63 per cent of the cost of the seed. In a country like ours where over 70 percent of farmers' are small-scale, it goes without saying that the cost of the seed will be prohibitively high for them. The Burkinabes have also recently abandoned the GM varieties which have over the years resulted in shorter fibres which are of low quality compared to the country’s conventional cotton.
It is reported that the farmers got nearly Sh306 million ($3 million) in compensation due to the quality problems in two seasons.
In South Africa, the challenges that Bt cotton farmers of the Makhatini Flats have faced are well documented despite the PR exercise that tries to paint a different picture.
Further, it has been proven that pesticide use actually increases to curb the emergence of secondary pests.
I am reliably informed that in the areas where the National Performance Trials are taking place, a lot of measures are being put in place to ensure the Bt cotton is a success to the extent of water being drawn from rivers to irrigate the Bt cotton field.
If huge amounts of water is needed, will the Bt cotton do well in dry areas like Makueni? Are we looking at a case like Galana Kulalu where millions of shillings were poured into a sinking hole?
Has the government considered all these issues and if so, how does it plan to deal with them?
Once Bt cotton is accepted, the next step will be the introduction of other food crops like Bt maize and GM Soya into the food system.
Whichever way you look at it, the main beneficiaries will be the multinationals who will effectively take over the seed and food industry in Africa. If this happens, will we continue depending on subsidies and for how long?
Clearly, there are more questions to this issue than answers and we should therefore not rush to blindly adopt a technology that we have not fully understood, are not prepared for and one that has clearly failed and been rejected elsewhere.
There are better, safer and sustainable solutions that we can adopt to address food insecurity issues and revive the textile industry to protect and uphold Kenyans’ well-being.
Anne Maina, national co-ordinator, Kenya Biodiversity Coalition.