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May 31, 2012

Is the GM cotton touted for Burkina Faso and West Africa really the new 'white gold?'

Cotton is Burkina Faso's most important export crop. As in many other African countries, cotton cultivation and the industry in general have for many years been severely challenged by various factors, including: increasingly unpredictable climate; declining soil fertility; expensive and hard to access inputs like fertilizer; and  low competitiveness versus mechanized, subdized farmers in the US, Brazil and elsewhere.

As a result of all these factors and more, cotton farming is a declining sector in many African countries. But for Burkina Faso and a handful of its West African neighbors, giving up this sector is not as easy as in more agriculturally and economically diversified countries.

As part of efforts to shore up the many challenges of its cotton sector, Burkina Faso adopted GM cotton about 10 years ago. GM cotton has been controversial in India for all sorts of reasons, not all of which apply to Burkina Faso, but the latter country's adoption and use of GM cotton has been a fairly quiet affair. In the African context, GM cotton is far less controversial than the idea of gene technology applied to an iconic food crop like maize, as South Africa has long done and Kenya has recently accepted to start doing.

As with all things to do with GM crops, the benefits of GM cotton for Burkina Faso depend on who you ask. But GM cotton there is firmly established, reportedly accounting for as much as 50% of the total
planted area.

Peter Dörrie critiques comments made by Jean-Paul Sawadogo, the head of the national textile association of Burkina Faso, Sofitex. Sawadogo touts the advantages of GM cotton and expresses the hope that the share of it in in Burkina 'will rise to 60% during the next season and ideally 90% in the future.'

Unlike a lot of the criticisms of gene modification made by many activists, Dörrie's is calm and not overtly ideological. This is relevant and important because it makes his points relatively easy to pay attention to and digest on their merits. There is no obvious sense of his promoting (or necessarily opposing) one or another 'agenda.' He simply raises questions and makes points that come across as being entirely reasonable and fact/logic-based.

Writes Dörrie, ''I see several problems with this anticipated reliance on GM cotton. Firstly, it subjects the cotton farmers (not to speak of the national economy of Burkina Faso) to the whims of a company. Monsanto is not exactly known for its do-gooding attitude and as the “creator” of Bt cotton with the political power of the USA behind it, relying on them as a “partner” is a risky gamble.''

Arguably this point is hard to dispute, regardless of whether one is pro or anti GM. In a business sense, let alone from the perspective of national policy, it seems a strategy fraught with danger for a country to tie the fortunes of its almost sole cash crop to the whims of a far off foreign company that at polite best can be described as aggressive in protecting its commercial interests. Even if Monsanto had a benign reputation, how does it make good sense for Burkina Faso to willy nilly become so dependent on that company to provide the seed for the one crop that drives whatever economy Burkina Faso has? Is this not to virtually  invite future abuse by that foreign commercial entity?

Dörrie also questions what will happen if and when Monsanto raises the price of GM cotton seeds, which he points out 'have to be bought each year from a licensed reseller,' beyond what they can afford. The glib answer to this question has often been that increased production/yields will make the farmers able to afford the GM seed each year, but that has not at all been the consistent expeience of Indian GM cotton farmers. Poor rains (an increasingly likely prospect in Bukina Faso's sub-region) or lack of one or another input can easily wipe out  a small scale cotton farmer, who is often at the edge of disaster even in the best of times.

Dorrie points out that ''the benefits (of GM over conventional cotton) are not as clear as Mr. Sawadogo makes them seem. The evidence on long-time productivity enhancement through the use of GM
cotton is inconclusive, with different studies contradicting each other.'' He goes on to add, ''It is telling that Sawadogo qualifies his productivity claim with the need to use the right fertilizing regime.''

That last point is also important because how to make fertilizer consistently, affordably accessible to small scale African farmers is a huge question that no one has been able to answer, including all the peddlers of the various 'green revolution' gospels that are currently crawling all over Africa.

Dorrie's article is one of the better, more measured critiques of the possible implications of a poor country seeking to turn over almost all source material/seed of its main/sole cash crop to one commercial entity, and one with the reputatin of Monsanto at that.

African Agriculture

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