Duff GM cotton in Burkino Faso

November 2016

Burkino Faso has earned a global reputation for the quality of the cotton it produces. This has given the country a vital competitive advantage in the world cotton market.

Their secret is in their seeds, produced by a decades-long breeding programme which began during the French colonial era. This, coupled to hand-harvesting which keeps the fibres intact and retains their length and sturdiness, gives a high lint-yield per pound of raw cotton.

Cottonseed in Burkino Faso is controlled by three companies (the largest of which s state-owned), each operating in its own exclusive zone. The company provides seed and inputs on credit to farmers at the beginning of the growing season and then buys back the cotton at a fixed price at the end of the season. Farmers are spared the task of extracting seed for replanting, and are paid by weight for the cotton plus seeds.

This doesn't sound like the sort of scenario into which Monsanto's high-tech cotton varieties aimed at mechanised farming, royalties, contracts, and World Bank backing, are going to fit.

However, in 2005, Burkino Faso partnered with Monsanto to introduce a Bt insecticide-producing gene into the local cotton varieties, and by 2008, seed with 'Bt' DNA lodged in the original, successful, genetic background was released to the market.

Burkinabe farmers enthusiastically embraced Bt cotton, whose lower pesticide needs meant reduced labour.

Studies from 2009 showed a Bt cotton yield 'gain' of 18.2%, which boosted profits despite the higher GM seed cost. Later studies reported a 50% increase in profit compared with conventional cotton.

In 2016, the Bt bubble burst.

Burkino Faso's cotton controlling companies abruptly discontinued the biotech seed, and cotton farmers had no choice but to grow the conventional seed they were given.

The problem was that Bt lint is inferior in quality and was losing the cotton companies tens of millions of dollars in market value. It also risked undermining the high global reputation of Burkinabe lint.

International studies researchers have questioned whether the limited, Monsanto-funded studies which attributed such huge advantages in yield 'gain' and profit to Bt cotton were fixed.

As in all Bt crops so far, the cotton plants themselves haven't been developed for higher yield. The claimed yield 'gain' is a reduced loss due to reduced pests. This is a good deal for farmers, but was their 'gain' really so spectacular?

No conventional control crops were grown, so the 'science' measuring yield was based on a comparison with non-Bt refuges. Refuge crops are planted to breed non-Bt-exposed pests and so slow the development of pest resistance: these crops aren't cared for nor sprayed, and their yield is bound to be low. Interestingly, farmers don't harvest the refuge separately from their GM crop, so it's a mystery where the data for conventional yields came from. The 18% 'gain' could in reality be a loss.


Here's proof, if you still need it, that slotting one gene into a genome to produce one protein in the organism doesn't just produce a plant with an extra protein. The question of why the GM lint was different may never be answered. Was it the GM plant's strained physiology or disturbed protein biochemistry? Was it the Bt toxin's negative effects on the GM plant's relationship with soil fungi [1]?

Without Burkino Faso's centralised cotton agri-supply system and marketing, its farmers could have been wiped out by the collapse in their cotton quality before they could access alternative seed.

The scary aspect is that changed cotton-processing characteristics are immediately obvious: the presence of a toxin or allergen in material used in close proximity to our bodies [2] and eaten by our livestock is not.

[1] FUNGI DON'T LIKE Bt CROPS - September 2016

[2] ALLERGIC TO ENZYMES - Coming up, November 2016

  • Glen David Stone, Bt cotton in Africa: What happened in Burkina Faso? 
CC photo: carrying harvested cotton to be deseeded. Bukina Faso, Africa. Photo by Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) on Flickr

No comments:

Post a comment

Thanks for your comment. All comments are moderated before they are published.