African farmers say NO
Ordinary cotton-growers and other farmers have voted against introducing genetically-modified crops in a "citizens jury" in Mali, which is the world's fourth poorest country. Instead, the jurors proposed a package of recommendations to strengthen traditional agricultural practice and support local farmers.
The five day event (25-29 January) took place in Sikasso in the south of the West African country, where two-thirds of the country's cotton is produced. Mali is the largest producer of cotton in sub-Saharan Africa, largely grown by smallholder farmers whose livelihoods depend on it.
Birama Kone, a small farmer on the 43-strong jury, said: "GM crops are associated with the kind of farming that marginalises the mutual help and co-operation among farmers and our social and cultural life."
Basri Lidigoita, a woman farmer on the jury, said: "We do not ever ever want GM seeds. Never."
Brahim Sidebe, a medium-size farmer on the jury, said: "Farmers do not want GM crops and do not want public research to work on GM technology in Mali."
The jurors cross-examined 14 international witnesses representing a broad range of views on this controversial issue. These included biotech scientists, agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation and farmers from South Africa and India with first-hand experience of growing GM crops.
African countries are under increasing pressure from agribusiness to open their markets to GM crops and industrialise their farming sector, but the continent remains divided in its response. South Africa and Mali's neighbour Burkina Faso have allowed the introduction of GM, but Benin has said no.
Though the jurors' decision is not binding, it is expected to influence the future direction of agricultural policy in Mali and across the region where most people rely on subsistence farming.
The citizens jury was hosted by the regional government (Assemblee Regionale de Sikasso) and, to ensure a fair process, it was designed and facilitated by the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and RIBios, the University of Geneva's Biosafety Interdisciplinary Network, together with a wide range of local partners in Mali.
IIED's Dr Michel Pimbert said: "This initiative is about making the agriculture agenda more directly responsive to African people's priorities and choices. It is vital that we redress the current democratic deficit in which governments and big agri-food corporations have far more say than farmers and other citizens about how land is used, and what crops are grown. We must all recognise that local people have the right to decide the food and farming policies they want. This citizens jury has provided a safe space for farmers to reach an informed, evidence-based view on this complicated and often controversial issue, which can then be amplified to policy-makers."
Kokozie Traore, President, Assemblee Regionale Sikasso, said: "This citizen space for democratic deliberation has allowed farmers to learn about the potential risks and benefits of GM in the context of Malian farming. As a learning process it has created many synergies between all actors in our province, from the very local to the regional level. The citizens jury has been an eye-opening process and has made possible a cross-fertilisation of local, regional and international opinions on GM and the future of farming."
One of the local organisers, Dr Togola, Research Director of the Sikasso Agricultural Research Station, said: "I am very satisfied. I know that during the last five days our farmers have been sufficiently informed and empowered to make the choices that best suit them on GM and farming options."