Is genetically modified cotton really the new “white gold”?

Cotton farmer in Burkina Faso. NYTimes photo.

In an interview with Jeune Afrique (French) Jean-Paul Sawadogo, the head of the national textile association of Burkina Faso, “Sofitex”, touts the advantages of genetically modified (GM) cotton.  Burkina Faso has been the first (and so far only) West African country to allow GM cotton onto domestic fields ten years ago.

By now, GM cotton is something of the norm in international cotton production. In 2009, 49% of the worldwide total area planted with cotton used GM cotton. As countries like the USA and Australia grow almost exclusively GM cotton and have a high productivity, one can safely assume that well over 50% of the worldwide crop is genetically modified.

GM cotton comes in two flavors. It is either genetically modified to withstand a certain kind of ultra-effective pesticide (commonly known as Roundup), or it has been enhanced to produce a certain kind of pesticide itself (known as Bt cotton, after the bacteria that provided the DNA for this). Both varieties have been “invented” by the US corporation Monsanto.

In Burkina Faso, the Bt cotton variant is used on 50% of the total planted area. According to Sawadogo, this has enormous benefits, saving the farmers long walks with heavy loads of pesticides on their backs, easing the environmental impact of formerly heavy pesticide use and enhancing productivity of the “white gold” by 30% (if the fertilizing regime is obeyed). Sawadogo wants to increase the share of Bt cotton in Burkina to 60% during the next season and ideally 90% in the future.

I see several problems with this anticipated reliance on GM cotton. Firstly, it subjects the cotton farmers (not to speak of the national economy of Burkina Faso) to the whims of a company. Monsanto is not exactly known for its do-gooding attitude and as the “creator” of Bt cotton with the political power of the USA behind it, relying on them as a “partner” is a risky gamble.

Bt cotton seeds have to be bought each year from a licensed reseller. This is fine for the farmers as long as Monsanto keeps the prices low. But it is a known fact that each and every monopoly gets abused at some point.

Also, the benefits are not as clear as Mr. Sawadogo makes them seem. The evidence on long-time productivity enhancement through the use of GM cotton is inconclusive, with different studies contradicting each other. It is telling that Sawadogo qualifies his productivity claim with the need to use the right fertilizing regime.

The benefits of having to use fewer pesticides are of course real for most farmers: they have to carry fewer loads to their fields and are not exposed to high amounts of the stuff. But I could imagine that the same effects can be attained by providing suitable transport, spraying equipment and training in the use of pesticides.

Farmers in Burkina likely make more money with GM cotton than with normal varieties. But at the same time they have higher expenses for the licensed seeds and subject themselves to the priorities of Monsanto.

The motivation of the government of Burkina to push for a higher use of GM cotton in the country and the region is meanwhile clear: As Sawadogo states, the government is in “discussions” with Monsanto to open a Bt cotton seed factory  in the country, for export into the “countries of the sub-region”.