Bt cotton debate rages on in Africa

The decision by Malawi to conduct confined biotechnology cotton field trials has reignited growing debate on the potential value and constraints of modern biotechnology in securing Africa’s development and food security goals.
Biotechnology experts say genetically modified cotton is developed using bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which naturally produces a chemical harmful only to a small fraction of insects such as the bollworm.

The Bt toxin is inserted into cotton, causing cotton called Bt cotton, to produce this natural insecticide in its tissues.

Proponents of biotechnology argue that cotton farmers in Zimbabwe, Malawi and most other African countries, can effectively reduce input costs and control damage from bollworms and other insects that frequently damage cotton by adopting Bt cotton.

They say cotton farmers in Africa suffer huge losses due to pest problems. The most destructive of pests is the African bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), which biotech experts say in severe cases can cause a 100 percent loss while in unprotected fields pest damage can be as high as 90 percent. Using Bt cotton developed using bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which naturally produces a chemical harmful only to a small fraction of insects such as the bollworm, they say reduction in pest infestations can increase yields and improve the livelihoods of cotton growers.

“At present, the control of bollworms in this region is done through application pesticides, which is a costly exercise in terms of cost of pesticides, spray equipment, and labour,” says Prof Moses Mkwapata, the principal investigator of Malawi Bt cotton field trials addressing a visiting delegation of Zimbabwean farmer representatives in Lilongwe recently.

“Bt cotton provides us with a more effective and less costly way to control damage from bollworms and other insects that damage cotton. So far the results we are getting from our trials are promising. Empirical evidence is showing positive results and I am quite confident that once we finish our Bt cotton studies it will bring immense benefits to our cotton producers.”

Prof Mkwapata says they are using the Bt cotton Bollgard 2 variety in their field trials at Bunda College of Agriculture at Lilongwe University and in Salima, a cotton growing region in central Malawi.

Malawi started conducting Bt cotton field trials in January last year and is continuing with the study as part of efforts by the government to promote better yields and earnings for smallholder cotton farmers who were struggling with bollworm attacks and high pesticide costs.

It is still to commercialise Bt cotton.

“Malawi wants to promote  demand-driven scientific research,” said Dr Ibrahim Benesi, a deputy director of Agricultural Research Services in Malawi.

“As a government, we don’t want to block science. We want to facilitate science for the good of agriculture. If there are good technologies, we want our people to benefit from them provided we follow our biosafety regulations and procedures.”

Prof Mkwapata reported that on average the Bt cotton crop received fewer sprays (three to four times a year) against bollworm compared to non-Bt cotton, which could be sprayed seven or eight times. “From our trials we can deduce that if our farmers adopt Bt cotton they can realise substantial pesticide savings and higher effective yields,” he says.

“We can realise huge gains from adopting Bt cotton in the region than if we resist. In fact, if Sadc countries fail to adopt the technology they will lose more.”

He says Bt cotton provides improved control of insects and weeds, reduced input costs such as labour and chemical application costs, increased yields, reduced exposure to chemical, and increased incomes.

“Our farmers can earn more money if they plant Bt cotton,” Prof Mkwapata says.

“There is mistrust and unjustified fear for Bt cotton. We need to promote understanding of these crop technologies. People are still misinformed and we need to engage them.”
A tour of the Malawi Bt cotton field trial plots was an eye opener for Zimbabweans who are also battling against the bollworms and rising input costs.

“This is the technology we want,” says Mr Rodgers Nyoni, a renowned cotton farmer from Gokwe.

“I have never seen such a good crop (Bt cotton). If someone says don’t grow it, what could be the reason for this. As Zimbabweans we need to adopt this crop to help us cut pesticide costs and enable us to sell our cotton at competitive prices.

“Our farmers are experiencing huge losses due to the bollworm problem.

“Despite the fears that we have for biotechnology, I think Zimbabwe as a country needs to seriously consider Bt cotton to help farmers reduce crop yield losses and enhance their earnings,” says Mr Berean Mukwende of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union.

Says Garikai Msika of the Zimbabwe National Farmers Union: “After seeing Bt cotton trials here in Malawi, I feel strongly that as farmers we need to make a lot of noise to adopt this technology.

“We are lagging behind in terms of adopting agricultural technologies, which could help cut input costs for our cotton farmers who are struggling with high pesticide costs and crop yield losses.

“This can be a useful technology to boost cotton production and help us meet some of the objectives outlined under the Zim-Asset economic blue print.”

Quton Seed Company director Edward Mhandu and National Biotechnology Authority of Zimbabwe chief executive Dr Jonathan Mufandaedza concur and say Zimbabwe must move with speed to conduct trials to avoid lagging behind.

“Resistance to new and emerging technologies will not help us,” says Dr Mufandaedza.

“We need to tap this new technology to improve the yields of our farmers and better their lives.”

Adds Mhandu: “If we fail to change, then change will change us. We have to do something to exploit the benefits coming from biotechnology innovations.”

But the road to the adoption of Bt cotton technologies is littered with landmines.

Supporters of GM crops have to grapple with vocal anti-GMO activists, limited capacity to deal with the processing of GM research applications, bureaucratic delays in approving field trials, mistrust and resistance from key decision makers in Government and limited public awareness of the issues surrounding research and development of GM crops.

In addition, they have to contend with issues related to disease resistance, bottlenecks encountered when co-ordinating with other line ministries, trade-related restrictions, biosafety regulation and the overwhelming influence of multinational companies, Governments and their sidekicks – NGOs.

“We need to communicate correct information to our farmers,” says Dr Benesi.

“We must refrain from confusing our farmers with messages that say GM crops are a panacea. Its not an overnight thing, they are many challenges that we face on the road to adoption.”

He says development partners were unwilling to fund laboratory infrastructure development and to train people.

“Powerful seed companies want to do things the easier way. They want to release the technology and make money, but are not keen to help us invest in our scientific infrastructure, to train our people and follow biosafety regulations,” he says.

“As governments in Africa, we need to be cautious, to manage the adoption of the technology and ensure that we secure the interest of our people first.

“Africans have to drive the research agenda and not leave everything to multinationals and NGOs. We must start it ourselves, empower our scientists and do trials that can help our farmers. Whatever comes from donors should complement what we are already doing.”

Dr Benesi says Malawi cannot walk the Bt cotton road alone.

“We are landlocked country and for us to adopt, our neighbours in the Sadc region must also agree with what we are doing. If we don’t agree on GMO levels and safe handling, this can be a major problem,” he says.

“We need to consider this so that we are not stuck.”

Other biotechnology experts say key factors influencing the adoption of biotech crops include whether GMOs offer a sustainable food security option, biosafety implications on human health and the environment, the extent of existing capacity to undertake research and effectively monitor and evaluate GMO products and their use.

Technical considerations, risk aversion, profitability and social acceptability are also important.

In Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan increased Bt cotton hectarage by 50 percent and 300 percent, respectively according to the 2013 International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) report.

South Africa has also seen growth in Bt cotton and maize output. Kenya, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda have been conducting biotech crop field trials as a key step to approval for commercialisation.

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  • Grace Jones

    Before advocating for the adoption of Btt cotton, what is the effect of having this Bt cotton on the African environment? The cotton plant is eaten by domestic animals like cattle , goats etc. This is advocating for production en masse of a poison. I am very wary about that. Looks to me like another cancer/or some such health problem import for people and animals and plants