How Monsanto’s GM cotton sowed trouble in Africa

December 11, 2017

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FARMERS work at a cotton market in Soungalodaga village near Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, in this March 8 photo.—Reuters
FARMERS work at a cotton market in Soungalodaga village near Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, in this March 8 photo.—Reuters

IN 2000, farmers in Burkina Faso, Africa’s top cotton grower, were desperate. Their cotton fetched top prices because its high-quality fibre lent a luxurious sheen to clothing and bedsheets. But pests bollworms were threatening the crop.

Even when you dropped the bollworm larvae into a bucket of poison, farmers said, they kept swimming.

US seeds and pesticide company Monsanto, which has agreed to a $66 billion takeover by Germany’s Bayer, proposed an answer: a genetically modified strain of cotton called Bollgard II, which it had already introduced in America and was marketing worldwide.

GM was established in large-scale farming in South Africa, but not among the smallholders who produce most African cotton. The Burkina farmers agreed to a trial and the country introduced seeds with the gene in 2008.

The resulting cotton was pest-free, and the harvest more abundant. By 2015, three-quarters of all Burkina Faso’s production was GM, and it became a showcase for the technology among smallholders in Africa. From 2007 to 2015, delegations from at least 17 different African nations visited Burkina to see it.

But there was a problem. While the bug-resistant genes produced more volume, the quality fell. Last season, the cotton farmers of Burkina Faso abandoned the GM varieties.

“Genetically modified cotton, it’s not good today. It’s not good tomorrow,” said farmer Paul Badoun, picking apart a lumpy handful of raw cotton in his field.

The country’s GM experience, told by more than three dozen Monsanto insiders, farmers, scientists and cotton company officials as well as in confidential documents, highlights a little-known quandary faced by genetic engineering.

For Burkina Faso’s cotton growers, GM ended up as a trade-off between quantity and quality. For Monsanto, whose $13.5bn in revenues in 2016 were more than Burkina Faso’s GDP, it proved uneconomical to tailor the product closely to a market niche.

The Burkinabes knew from the start that American cotton varieties containing Monsanto’s gene could not deliver the quality of their home-grown crop, cotton company officials and researchers said. But they pressed on because Monsanto agreed to breed its pest-resistant genes into their native plants, which they hoped would protect the cotton and keep its premium value. That, they say, was a failure.

In July 2015 Monsanto wrote to the Burkina growers saying the quality problems had been offset by other benefits. Asked about the quality problems and whether it promised to fix them, the company did not respond. Instead, it pointed to a dispute that erupted with Burkina Faso over payments for seed-licensing fees.

The Bt venture was a collaborative effort with Burkinabe authorities and local stakeholders, and Monsanto communicated with all stakeholders to better understand the alleged issue, it said: the alleged decline in cotton quality “can be attributed to various factors such as the environment”.

Roger Zangre, a Burkinabe agricultural scientist who helped bring Monsanto to Burkina Faso, said Burkina’s technical shortcomings were partly to blame for the problems with the GM crops.

For Burkina Faso’s growers, GM ended up as a trade-off between quantity and quality. ‘Genetically modified cotton, it’s not good today. It’s not good tomorrow,’ a farmer says

Africa’s annual cotton exports are worth nearly $1.2bn, according to statistics compiled by the Swiss-based International Trade Centre. South Africa and Sudan are the only other African nations apart from Burkina Faso to introduce GM cotton so far.

‘Everything was good’

Burkina Faso is big in African cotton, but small in global terms. India, the world leader, grows over 20 times more cotton each year. Even so, Burkina depends heavily on cotton exports.

Around a fifth of its workforce participates in the sector, according to the World Bank. Unable to go head-to-head against big producers, Burkina Faso instead cultivated quality.

“Burkina cotton was one of the most preferred cottons,” said Ashwin Subramanian, head of Singapore-based commodities trader Olam International’s West African cotton business.

The country’s major pest problems began in the 1990s — first whiteflies, then bollworms which feed on flower buds, withering them and damaging fruits.

Farmers were spending around $60m every year to protect their cotton, and even then losing 20 per cent to 65pc of their crops, Monsanto said. Losses could rise to 90pc in fields that had not been treated with pesticides.

In 1995, the Burkina government asked Zangre, the local agricultural scientist, to look into biotech solutions. He met Monsanto officials at a conference in Cameroon in 1999 and the following year helped introduce the company’s representatives to officials from Burkina’s cotton companies and the farmers’ union. Together with government officials, they decide policy for the cotton sector.

In 2003, Burkinabe researchers began testing Bollgard II cotton that was being grown in the United States. Right away, they confirmed it was effective against pests. It contains a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, that wards off insect larvae.

But the quality problems were equally obvious.

Cotton quality is most commonly determined by the length of the fibre, or staple, that emerges when a tuft is pulled out of a cotton boll. The longer the fibre or staple, the higher the quality. Monsanto’s American Bt cotton produced short fibres, the kind typically used to make fabric for everyday use such as jeans and t-shirts.

“When we started using it, we knew that the American variety wouldn’t interest us, because it didn’t have the quality we required,” said Bazoumana Koulibaly, research head for the cotton programme at Burkina Faso’s agricultural research institute, INERA.

The Burkinabes said they asked Monsanto to breed the Bt gene into their native cotton, so they could marry its pest resistance with their long fibres. However, tests conducted by INERA in 2006 and 2008 found that the new Burkinabe Bt fibres were between 0.88 mm and 2.41 mm shorter than the country’s conventional cotton.

In 2008, Burkina Faso’s government tried to introduce new liability provisions to the deal, according to a US diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. Then US Ambassador Jeanine Jackson intervened on behalf of Monsanto.

“Upon hearing the news of a possible halt to the planned commercialisation of the Bt cotton in Burkina Faso, Ambassador discussed the issues with both Prime Minister Tertius Zongo and Monsanto reps,” the cable said. “The PM then interceded and instructed that the administrative order be changed to meet Monsanto’s terms.”

Short fibres

By 2014, GM cotton had surged to almost three-quarters of all the cotton acreage planted in Burkina Faso.

In the three seasons before Burkina introduced Bt cotton, over 90pc of its output was classed as high quality medium to long staple by the country’s cotton companies. In 2010-11, GM cotton made up over half of production, but only 21pc of the crop reached the previous quality standard.

“There was a problem selling this cotton,” Agriculture Minister Jacob Ouedraogo said.

Monsanto paid nearly $3m in compensation to the Burkinabes in those first two seasons due to the quality problems, according to the memo, which was sent in 2015 to complain about losses cotton companies had incurred. Monsanto declined to comment on this point.

Burkina Faso’s cotton continued to suffer. In 2014-15, average Bt cotton fibres from around the country were up to 2.29 mm shorter than the conventional strains. The cotton lost its premium pricing.

Know-how

Geneticists like Jane Dever, a professor and cotton breeder at Texas A&M University, say the problem was the process, not the Bt gene. Retaining specific quality characteristics in new varieties is one of the hardest tasks facing cotton breeders, Dever said.

“It can be done,” she said. “You just have to make sure you do the appropriate number of backcrosses and you do the appropriate amount of testing.”

To introduce a gene, breeders cross a plant already containing it with a second parent possessing other desired traits — in this case, Burkina’s long cotton fibres. They then breed the first hybrid with the second parent. The process, known as a backcross, continues: The more backcrosses, the more the new variety will resemble the second parent.

‘Armed and seasoned’

By 2016, the Inter-Professional Cotton Association of Burkina, the cotton sector’s umbrella organisation, claimed the cotton companies’ losses had reached around $85m over the previous five seasons.

In the final settlement that ended the partnership last December, Yameogo said Monsanto ceded over $19m in royalties that the Burkinabes had been withholding. In exchange, the Burkinabes agreed to drop demands for compensation.

Burkina Faso is now clawing back its reputation. In the 2016-17 season, the first since it returned to conventional cotton seeds, 98.8pc of its production was graded as medium to long staple. So far, the bollworms have not returned. If they do, Burkinabe officials say they aren’t turning their backs on GM. “We still favour the use of biotechnologies,” said Yameogo, the cotton company boss. “We’ve been armed and seasoned by the experience we had with Monsanto.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, December 11th, 2017