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March 26, 2009

Burkinabe cotton farmers expanding GM and organic cultivation

by Katrina Manson

Burkina Faso, West Africa's biggest cotton grower, is fighting the damaging effects of falling prices by championing organic and genetically modified cotton, industry sectors often seen at loggerheads.

Both forms of "white gold" reduce the need for costly imported inputs and reduce or eliminate the need for farm workers to walk among poisonous pesticides, though they are backed by vastly different political and environmental lobbies.

The country's organic cotton already leads the region, threading its way into $10 "organic hiphugger" pants sold by American lingerie chain Victoria's Secret, its biggest buyer, as well as into Swiss swimming costumes and French police uniforms.

"There are people who've never grown conventional cotton before who are now producing organic cotton," said Athanase Yara, coordinator of the organic cotton programme at the National Union of Cotton Producers of Burkina Faso.

"With organic cotton even a pregnant woman can go into the farms, and the women don't have to take on debt because they make all the inputs -- fertiliser and pesticides -- themselves."

Inputs account for more than half the cost of production of conventional cotton, and a fall in benchmark cotton prices as set in New York by almost 50 percent to 44 cents per lb in the past 12 months makes conventional growing less viable.

Elderly mother-of-six Juliana Dabire is among the women who make up 30 percent of the country's 8,000 organic cotton growers and who receive double the money per kg for their produce as conventional cotton farmers. Dabire, who more usually farms maize, millet and peanuts, makes her fertiliser by hand from dung mixed with leftover cotton stems and water, and pesticides from local seeds.

"I can pay school fees and I even bought bicycles for my two older sons thanks to organic cotton," she said under the shade of a mango tree in her home village of Gora, 235 km southeast of the cotton capital Bobo-Dioulasso.

Burkina is the world's 10th biggest producer of organic cotton, but still it accounts for less than 1 percent of the country's cotton crop, and not even half of this year's crop has been sold as the global financial crisis puts off buyers.

Swiss aid group Helvetas, which supports the project, says at most it could rise to 4-5 percent of national production.
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"In Burkina it (organic cotton) is a niche," d Galina Sotirova, country representative for the World Bank. "When more than 60 percent of your population depends on cotton, the objective is to get productivity high and to gain as much income as possible from exports of cotton," she said. "There are big hopes that genetically modified cotton is going to help -- and it is already increasing productivity."

Local researchers working on genetically modified cotton, developed jointly by U.S. company Monsanto and national scientists, have found the strain requires only one or two pesticide treatments a year instead of the normal six to eight, and boosts production by 30 percent. It may account for as much as a third of the cotton sown in the coming 2009/10 campaign.

"I prefer GM cotton -- the money goes further and your children don't have to walk among dangerous pesticides," said Francois Traore, head of the country's producer union and the national industry association.

His family members work his own two farms covering 200 hectares. "The only people who say they don't want it aren't in cotton," he said.

The Guardian

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