Africa Wrapped in —Genetically Modified—Cotton

Having welcomed genetically modified cotton with much enthusiasm, many farmers in the West African country of Burkina Faso now regret that decision as the revenues haven’t met their expectations.

Doh Yezouma walks past a fluffy mound. From afar it looks a pile of snow. Is this a mirage at high noon under the scorching tropical sun? No, it’s just the past few days’ cotton crop. The fortyyearold waves a greeting to two men further down the field, the plant just above their waist. He walks down a narrow path between cotton plants with pristine fluffy balls of white poking out of their pods. Mr. Yezouma, a spokesman for a group of growers near the town of Houndé in the West African state of Burkina Faso plucks a fruit from each plot. At first sight, the “cotton wool” growing on either side seems exactly the same. However, the plants growing on the right are ordinary, while those on the left have been genetically modified.

The farmer shows me clusters of round seeds the size of peppercorns concealed among the tangled threads. “The Genetically modified cotton has more light threads but the seeds are also considerably lighter. This is to our disadvantage because we sell by weight,” says Mr. Yezouma. His neighbours nod their approval. They regret that they have let the government talk them into growing the modified crop.

Another farmer, Loudon Yaya, tells me that in 2013 he sowed a quarter of his eight hectare plot with genetically modified cotton and the rest with the conventional variety so that he could compare the yield.“There’s no difference. Except that sowing is a lot more expensive,” he says, pointing out that the cost of seeds and crop spraying of the modified variety costs a quarter more per year. “That’s despite the fact that they promised us much greater profits. I’m switching back to ordinary cotton next year,” grumbles the unhappy farmer.

“There Have Been No Complaints.”

However, a spokesman for SOFITEX, the government-owned company that has a monopoly on purchasing the soft commodity in the west of the country, tells a rather different story. Gilbert Kaboré, who insisted on responding in writing, claims in a lengthy e-mail: “Not a single farmer in Burkina has complained about gene tically modified cotton. Quite the contrary, farmers’ demand for modified seeds has been growing.” To support this he attaches a rather confusing table which shows that since his country embraced the genetically modified plants in 2007, overall production has increased from 355,000 to 417,000 tons. Most of the exports go to Asian markets.

Mr. Kaboré lists a number of advantages of genetically modified cotton. It is more resistant to worms and other pests and this, in turn, results in bigger crop yields. As opposed to conventional cotton it has to be sprayed with pesticides only twice a year rather than six times a year as in the past. This means less work for the farmers and reduced health risk.

Although Mr. Kaboré claims there is no difference between growing the genetically modified plant and the traditional variety, a few answers later he mentions that a smaller crop can occur but only if a farmer doesn’t follow the instructions to the letter: “Some farmers have such confidence in the productivity of genetically modified cotton that they don’t spray their crops at all. A fragile boll casing might be another problem, which can occur if the farmers cheat on fertilizers. Genetically modified cotton needs more fertilizers because it produces more fruit.”

Speaking on the phone, the former head of the Czech Academy of Science’s Centre for Biology backs Kaboré’s view, albeit with the proviso that he is not familiar with the details of the situation in Burkina Faso. “There might be three reasons that could prevent it from thriving in sub-Saharan conditions. Firstly, there may be different types of parasites or, secondly, some cheating may be going on with the seeds. And thirdly, the farmers may not follow the instructions to the letter, which is the most likely explanation. Do you think they would keep growing it in the US if the results were not convincing?” asks the scientist who makes no secret of being a fan of enhancing farming by genetic modification.

Filling the Empty Stomachs in Frankenstein Fashion

The question of whether genetic modification should be embraced is rife with controversy. For its opponents it represents Frankensteinlike experiments that can get out of mankind’s control and may be detrimental to human health. Its supporters regard it as a chance to ensure that the stomachs of a constantly swelling global population can be filled once the limits of expanding farmable land have been reached. Europeans have been most vocal in their concern about genetically modified products. For example, the Czech Republic has so far approved only one type of lab-enhanced corn. European concerns have had a major impact on Africa, whose agricultural exports are aimed primarily at the old continent. That is why they can’t afford to grow plants that might not be wanted in Europe. On the other hand, the Western hemisphere, under US leadership, is enthusiastic about genetically modified agriculture, particularly soy and corn. The only country that has banned it is Peru.

The government of Burkina Faso believed that since cotton is not ingested it is an ideal candidate for the role of a “pioneer” that could diminish African suspicions of genetic modification. Genetically modified cotton is engineered to contain the bacterium known as Bacillus thuringiensis, which eliminates harmful worms although it does not offer protection against other, less common parasites. Approved in the US as early as 1996, it is now grown on threefifths of American cotton fields. Thirteen further countries followed the US’s lead, including Argentina, Australia, China, India and South Africa. The governments of Thailand and Indonesia, on the other hand, had to revoke their original approval following fierce protests.

The global image of modified cotton has been blemished by the fact that it was developed in the labs of Monsanto, the biotechnology firm that is regarded as a major villain by non-profit organizations fighting hunger and working for improved methods of food production. Its bad reputation dates back to the days of the Vietnam war, when Monsanto was the key producer of Agent Orange, the destructive defoliant that the US army used widely to spray the jungles of Southeast Asia, where handicapped children are still being born today as a result.

While it is difficult to dismiss concerns about the excessive power of large corporations who, their critics maintain, are interested only in lining the pockets of affluent shareholders at the expense of the poor, what really matters is whether the genetically modified plant has improved its growers’ lot in the developing world as much as its promoters have promised.

Suicide as a Form of Protest Against Genetically Modified Cotton

The majority of international media reports on the subject come from India where over 90 percent of plantations at its peak were sowed with genetically modified cotton. Unfortunately, the reports contradict one another. For example, the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) has calculated that between 2002 and 2008 the farmers who pioneered growing genetically modified cotton increased their production by 24 percent and their profits grew by 50 percent. The British daily The Guardian, on the other hand, cites a study carried out by the scientists Abdul Quaum and Kiran Sakhari in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The article says that the income of farmers growing genetically modified cotton was 60 percent lower than that of farmers who had stuck with the traditional variety. This was because the cost of pesticides had actually gone up rather than dropped. The negative scenario has been further confirmed by press reports on hundreds of villagers who have fallen disastrously into debt as a result of buying expensive genetically modified seeds and ended up committing suicide. As a result of these recurrent tragedies the government of the central Indian state of Maharashtra banned genetically modified cotton in 2012.

A similar report from Burkina Faso by Radio France Internationale has proved to be a canard. The genetically modified material enjoys support in the highest places. SOFITEX spokesman Gilbert Kaboré told us that there wasn’t a single cooperative (all cotton farmers in Burkina Faso belong to cooperatives) in his country that didn’t grow genetically modified plants.

While I cannot vouch for other parts of the country, this claim certainly doesn’t go down well in Houndé, where I talked to some dozen farmers under a palm leaf shelter by a main road. They are afraid they will never be able to throw off the genetically modified shackles. “At first those who agreed to grow genetically modified cotton got fertilizers for free. This attracted a lot of people,” says Doh Yezouma, the most fluent French speaker among the group. “Anyone who wants to go back to conventional cotton now faces the threat of being cut off from fertilizer supplies,”the cooperative’s secretary adds. In this region SOFITEX provides farmers with fertilizers on loan before the growing season starts and they are expected to pay the state company back with their crop. They don’t have the money to buy fertilizers from another supplier.

Why don’t they rise up in protest against this kind of pressure? “Troublemakers could be punished by having their crop labeled as inferior in quality and being paid less. SOFITEX has the purchasing monopoly in this region,” says Yezouma dramatically. However, he admits that none of his colleagues have experienced this in person. Kaboré dismisses this kind of accusations: “Nobody in Burkina is obliged to grow genetically modified cotton. Anyone can switch back to ordinary cotton if they wish, and vice versa.”

The President’s Support for Genetics

This picture would be incomplete without mentioning that the country has been under the rule of the dictator Blaise Compaoré since 1987. And although he is not known for committing any atrocities, it is common knowledge that he hasn’t been particularly kind to his opponents. Suffice it to say that, in order to take over this country of 16 million inhabitants, he had his great friend Thomas Sankara killed. Nowadays he enjoys a reputation as promoter-in-chief of kickstarting backward African agriculture by playing with genes. It is not advisable to cross him.

The President says that what has motivated him to take the controversial measure was a desire to secure food self-sufficiency in the parched territory that borders an even drier Sahel zone in the north. Nevertheless, the Houndé farmers explain away their country leader’s predilection for genetically modified plants in general and cotton in particular by various conspiracy theories that don’t always make sense. They believe that Compaoré has conspired with the world powers to destroy local agriculture in order to force Africans to buy food from abroad. Another theory claims that he has a share in Monsanto’s seed sales profits. Yet another theory maintains that he is trying to drive the government-run SOFITEX into bankruptcy so that his cronies could buy it for peanuts in a planned privatization.

“And meanwhile, we’re being pushed into poverty. In 2012 we got 245 West African francs per kilogram of top quality cotton. Last year the price went down to 235 francs. How are we supposed to feed our families?”Yezouma moans about what Kaboré describes as an adjustment to the declining price of the commodity on global markets. Even if he is right, he’ll have a hard time convincing the farmers who, unlike him, definitely do not believe in a genetically modified future.

Tomáš Nídr

A freelance journalist focusing on Africa and Latin America.

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