In the news...

June 7th, 2016 / Dr Jocelyn Webster,

According to several well publicised recent reports, Burkina Faso has begun to phase out the use of genetically modified cotton which has been planted commercially since 2008 in the country. In fact, Burkina Faso became one of the first countries in Africa to adopt insect resistant GM cotton with field trials in 2003. Both farmers and companies found GM did increase cotton yields; however, it is now reported that the quality of cotton has declined. The use of GM cotton seeds by Burkina Faso farmers has been seen as a success story till this year with 140,000 Burkinabe farmers using the seeds by 2014.

Last year, according to an article on the Cornell Alliance for Science website, Burkina Faso produced a record 707,000 tons of cotton. Two-thirds of the crop was the GM variety, grown by some 200,000 smallholder farmers.

Many of these farmers have experienced a 50% increase in income in recent years, allowing them to improve their quality of life. This technology has worked well for the farmers as it’s more cost effective with higher yields and better profits. It is the cotton companies that have questioned the quality of the cotton saying that the fibre length of the cotton from the GM varieties is too short. This issue is more related to the original varieties used for the development of the GM seeds and can be rectified by now using varieties with longer fibres together with the insect resistance gene. Burkina Faso is now conducting field trials on the next generation of insect resistant GM cotton, maize (corn) and cowpea.

Yet the headlines around the world mostly highlight that Burkina Faso, once a strong supporter of GM technology, is “dropping” or “abandoning” the technology and that the rest of Africa should follow suit. What is also concerning is the use of this story to influence the EU not to support the introduction of GMOs in Africa, in a resolution criticising the G8’s New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition. 

The programme for African agricultural development, the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition (NAFSN), does not serve the interests of family farmers, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) warned in a resolution last month. The partnership foresees that developing countries will back “the distribution, adoption and consumption of biofortified crop varieties”. A target that aims to improve the nutritional quality of food in order to fight malnutrition, and which leaves the door wide open to the cultivation of GMOs say some. The New Alliance’s objective was to develop public-private partnerships in Africa in order to increase the continent’s agricultural production. To achieve this, the New Alliance mainly favoured private investment, which is too rare in certain countries such as Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia.

EuroActiv France reported on 22 April  2016 that in the European Parliament’s deliberations on the New Alliance it was highlighted that GM technology is not for Africa and that Burkina Faso is abandoning GMO cotton for economic reasons after ten years of cultivating the crop. The disappointing quality of GMO cotton had driven down the price of Burkina Faso’s one time flagship export and the government had decided to go back to traditional seed varieties.

The report noted that following the same logic, some MEPs urged “the G8 member states not to support GMO crops in Africa” in their resolution. Once again the European stance on GMOs may well influence agricultural development in Africa if this type of limited decision making is used in the future. Should European politicians be making decisions that will mean new GM varieties such as drought resistant maize will not be commercialized in the countries that need them the most?