Genetically modified cotton is risky

Thursday February 16 2017

Cotton researcher and Director, KARI Centre, Mwea, Dr Waweru Gitonga showing some of genetically fortified cotton against local pest and diseases at the centre. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Cotton researcher and Director, KARI Centre, Mwea, Dr Waweru Gitonga showing some of genetically fortified cotton against local pest and diseases at the centre. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By WANJIRU KAMAU
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By OUSMANE TIENDREBEOGO
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As Kenya grapples with whether to allow cultivation and commercialisation of genetically engineered cotton (Bt cotton), there is a need to be aware of the predicaments of farmers in Burkina Faso, a land-locked country, 90 per cent of whose population is in farming.

Known as “white gold”, cotton accounts for about three per cent of Burkina Faso’s GDP, and 18 per cent of its exports and provides a livelihood for over 3 million people.

Bt cotton was introduced in 2008 and by 2014, some 140,000 small-scale farmers were growing the crop, making up 70 per cent of the total cotton production.

Initially, this was hailed as a success story, with farmers reportedly earning 50 per cent more, according to Monsanto.

However, in 2016, cotton companies claimed that the Bt cotton varieties grown were producing lint of inferior quality, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

As a result, the government banned Bt cotton. While the main reason was the economic loss, particularly by companies, farmers expressed concern over the weight, complaining that GM cotton had fewer seeds in the lint than conventional varieties.

This is important to farmers as payment was based on weight, which meant reduced income from the GM variety.

Farmers also lacked choice of seed as ownership was by seed companies. This is a key socio-economic concern and an infringement on the rights of smallholders and access to genetic resources.

More important was the escalation in input costs, with the GM seed going for an equivalent of Sh4,500 compared to Sh121 for conventional seed.

The Bt cotton seed is 36 times more expensive! Monsanto gets a whopping 63 per cent of the cost of the seed. Thus, cultivation of Bt cotton can only impoverish the farmer.

One area that has not received much attention from the government and multinationals is the loss of animals by Burkinabe farmers as a result of feeding on the Bt cotton straw.

This was first reported in India, where farmers who had always fed their buffalo herds on conventional cotton straw, lost 13 animals on January 3, 2008 after feeding them on the Bt cotton straw.

This was reported in the e-publication, GMO Myths and Truths, with the authors concluding that “Bt toxins have been found to have toxic effects on non-target organisms, including mammals … they cause multiple effects to … organ systems”.

Though the economic impact of the loss of livestock on smallholders who use them for food and draught power is severe, no compensation has been received from the owner of the technology or the government.

Before adopting Bt cotton, Kenya needs to address the challenges related to production. According to a Cotton Growers Association’s ‘Status report on the cotton industry in Kenya’, the country reached a peak production of 70,000 bales in 1985, which has since dropped.

ORGANISED SEED PRODUCTION

It cites as key weaknesses lack of organised seed production and certification, the collapse of the Bura and Hola irrigation schemes, which reduced cotton seed production by over 30 per cent, and poor research-extension linkages.

Although the Kenya Agriculture & Livestock Research Organisation (Kalro) has developed two superior varieties, KSA 81M and Hart 89M for West and East Rift regions, respectively, a shortage of extension officers and poor agronomic practices have led to poor yields and low fibre quality.

Also, much of the cotton is produced in marginal areas and is still dependent on rain. This is why we are yet to realise the country’s potential of 700,000 bales if farmers are supported, especially with irrigation. The report does not mention that the cotton bollworm is a major constraint. Interestingly, though, some researchers have recommended that the country should commercialise the crop with Monsanto and Kalro, seeking the National Biosafety Authority’s nod.

Do alternatives exist? According to a 2010 study by Greenpeace, ‘Picking Cotton’, farmers who engage in ecological farming and diversify crops achieve a better, more secure livelihood than Bt cotton farmers. Ms Ann Maina, the co-ordinator of Kenya Biodiversity Coalition, believes that the commercialisation of Bt-cotton in Kenya is ill-advised.

She says Kenya must reject GM cotton based on the lessons learnt from Burkinabe and Indian farmers. “Failure to do this is likely to open doors to a technology that will hammer the last nail in the coffin of a sub-sector that is struggling, and yet it has great potential.”

Ms Kamau is the information, liaison, and policy manager of Kenya Organic Agriculture Network, and Mr Tiendrebeogo is the secretary general of the National Syndicate of Agropastoral Farmers in Burkina Faso