Written by Professor Brian Dowd-Uribe
Since serving in the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa, I have been very interested in schemes to improve food security in rural Africa. One of the most promoted schemes is the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops. Proponents like Robert Paarlberg and Calestous Juma claim that they are needed technologies to boost agricultural productivity and address regional food insecurities. Moreover they claim there is a moral imperative to make these useful technologies available to poor farmers. If they are good for Global North productivity, why can’t they help African productivity? On the other hand, opponents such as Vandana Shiva and a host of non-governmental organizations claim they will primarily benefit the relatively rich at the expense of poor peasant farmers.
Before diving in to the debate, we should first explore whether GM crops have been adopted in Africa, and what we know about their performance. To date, only two GM crops – insect-resistant forms of cotton and maize – have made it into the hands of African farmers. Of these, GM cotton has the longest empirical track record, having been the first GM crop ever introduced in Africa, and the only one that has been grown in multiple countries – first South Africa, then Burkina Faso. The performance of this crop has received intense scrutiny, as it offers the best indication of how the suite of other GM crops slated for commercial approval may perform across the continent.
In 2003, Burkina Faso, in partnership with Monsanto, became one of the first African countries to begin field trials of Bt cotton, the most commonly grown GM crop in the developing world. Bt refers to a toxin – Bacillus thuringiensis – that kills one of the world’s most common and pernicious cotton pests, the bollworm. Monsanto agreed to backcross the Bt gene onto local Burkinabè varieties, which were subsequently released to farmers in 2008. With more than 140,000 smallholder farmers cultivating Bt cotton, Burkina Faso has the largest number of total GM crops producers on the African continent, and is celebrated as an example for how GM crops can help poor farmers.
Farmers have enthusiastically adopted the technology, and for good reason. Despite the very high cost of Bt cotton seed, studies show that Bt cotton has increased yields and profits – with an average Bt cotton farming family gaining 50% more profit than from conventional cotton. Moreover, Bt cotton growers use significantly less noxious pesticides. The total number of sprayings has gone down from 6 to 2, reducing exposure of damaging chemicals and saving valuable labour time. Other studies, including my own work, acknowledges these benefits, but questions whether this is the most equitable development strategy; it may benefit principally those farmers who are already doing well – and be too risky of an investment for those farmers with small plots of land or less capital.
But the development outcomes of Bt cotton in Burkina Faso may soon be a thing of the past. Our recently published work reports that the inferior lint quality of Bt cotton has caused severe economic losses for Burkinabè cotton companies prompting a complete phase out of all Bt cotton production over the next two years. Company officials and Monsanto representatives cite two problems with lint quality. First, Bt varietals produce shorter, less desirable lint. The shorter length means poorer quality, which in turn means a lower price on the international market. Second, even though cotton yields are up, the amount of lint ginning machines is able to extract from the picked cotton has diminished. In other words, Bt cotton produces both less cotton lint, and lint of an inferior quality.
Inferior lint quality is not a big deterrent for farmers, who sell their cotton at a guaranteed price to the cotton companies. But it is a critical issue for the companies themselves, as the combination of shorter staples and lower lint quantities undermines profits. Given that these cotton companies also control the provision of seeds and inputs to farmers, they were able to unilaterally phase out Bt cotton, much to the dismay of the farmers themselves.
The story of Bt cotton in Burkina underlines the complex nature of debates around the potential for GM crops to help poor farmers. In this case the technology does what it is supposed to do: it confers pest resistance, reduces pesticide use and increases yield. Farmers like it, and want more of it. But an unexplained impact on staple length means the cotton companies are shifting away from this technology. Monsanto and Burkinabe technicians are working to resolve this problem and hope to find a solution via a new Bt cotton varietal, but the outcome their work is still uncertain.
Burkina Faso’s reversal on GM cotton also raises some worrying questions for the future of GM crops on the continent. Will different GM crops also have unintended and detrimental consequences? Can the institutions and companies in charge of their development be trusted to transparently show both the pros and cons to their adoption? Moreover, this case calls in to question the philosophy behind GM crop introductions – that genetically engineered scientific breeding programs can address farmer needs. The Burkina Faso case demonstrates the perils of such a narrow, trait specific approach to addressing agricultural development. Sometimes focusing on a single trait – in this case pest resistance – can have unintended and harmful consequences for other important traits – in this case cotton quality.