Tuesday, June 16, 2015

GM Cotton - The Issues

Genetically modified (GM) cotton has been produced globally for almost two decades, yet to date only three African countries have grown GM cotton on a commercial basis – South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan. A number of other African countries such as Malawi, Ghana, Swaziland and Cameroon appear to be on the verge of allowing their first cultivation of GM cotton, with Nigeria and Ethiopia planning to follow suit in the next two to three years.

Governments and local cotton producers have high hopes that GM technology will boost African competitiveness in the dog-eat-dog world that characterises the global cotton market. African cotton productivity is declining – it now stands at only half the world average – while global productivity is increasing. The promise of improving productivity and reducing pesticide use through the adoption of GM cotton is thus compelling. Scrutiny of actual experiences reveals a tragic tale of crippling debt, appalling market prices and a technology prone to failure in the absence of very specific and onerous management techniques, which are not suited to smallholder production. In Burkina Faso, the tide turned against GM cotton after just five seasons as low yields and low quality fibres persisted. In South Africa, GM cotton brought devastating debts to smallholders and the local credit institution went bust. Last season, smallholders contributed to less than three percent of South Africa’s total production. In Malawi, where Monsanto has already applied to the government for a permit to commercialise Bollgard II, its GM pest resistant cotton, Malawi’s cotton industry, the Cotton Development Trust (CDT), has publically voiced its concerns over a number of issues, including inadequate field trials, the high cost of GM seed and related inputs, and blurred intellectual property arrangements. In addition, CDT has expressed unease over the potential development of pest resistance and the inevitable applications of herbicide chemicals.

Experiments and open field trials with GM cotton have been running for many years in a number of African countries and are increasingly at a stage where applications for commercial release are imminent. However, there are many obstacles to the birth of a new GM era in Africa, chief among them the fact that this high-end technology is simply not appropriate to resource-poor farmers operating on tiny pieces of land. Africa’s cotton farmers are operating in a difficult global sector – prices are erratic and distorted by unfair subsidies in the North, institutional support for their activities is often lacking, and high input costs are already annihilating profit margins. Fighting for the introduction of more expensive technologies that have already proven themselves technologically unsound in a smallholder environment is deeply irresponsible and short-sighted.

Regional economic communities (RECs), such as the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Economic Community for West African States (ECOWAS), are also key players in readying their member states for the commercialisation of and trade in GM cotton, through harmonised biosafety policies. Attempts by the biotech industry to impose policies that pander to investors’ desires at the expense of environmental and human safety may be easier to realise at the regional level, through the trade-friendly RECs. This is where many biotech industry resources and efforts are currently being channelled.

A farmer during a Malian public consultation on GMOs explained “What’s the point of encouraging us to increase yields with GMOs when we can’t get a decent price for what we already produce?”

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