GM Cotton's Future in Africa on Shaky Ground
THIRD WORLD NETWORK BIOSAFETY INFORMATION SERVICE
Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) insect-resistant (Bt) cotton is grown in South Africa and Burkina Faso. A recently published journal paper explains how within 10 years of its introduction, most growers had abandoned Bt cotton altogether in Makhathini, South Africa, and why Burkina Faso has begun a complete phase out of GM cotton, in spite of being Africa's top cotton producer.
Burkina Faso's conventional cotton traditionally had a stellar international reputation and commanded a premium price based on its high quality, namely, its high ginning ratio and long staple length. Both qualities have seriously declined with the GM cotton, seriously undermining the reputation and value of Burkinabè cotton on the international market and compromising the profits of Burkinabè cotton companies. The companies are reportedly demanding that Monsanto compensate them to the tune of USD 280 million for losses incurred due to declines in quality since 2010.
The Burkina Faso case points to the risks of unintended effects in GM crops, in this instance, the insertion of the Bt trait into the local variety appears to have interfered unexpectedly with some of its most important characteristics, affecting commercial value. Also the exclusive focus on pest mitigation contrasts sharply with the Francophone West African breeding programmes, which have spent decades successfully integrating a broad spectrum of adaptability (to local growing conditions) and fibre quality characteristics. While yields were high, the experience of Burkina Faso demonstrate that focus on yield is not the defining factor of a crop’s success.
One possible implication of this phase out is that other Francophone African countries may be reluctant to adopt Bt cotton given the risks to their own highly valued reputations. It may also discourage other African countries that are considering the adoption of Bt cotton in the next few years. According to the paper, a key determinant will be the extent to which African governments and citizens are reassured that the transplantation of GM traits into their own cultivars will leave their most valued characteristics unchanged.