Bobo-Dioulasso — 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 bed sheets. 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 proposed an answer: a genetically modified (GM) 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 SA 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 near Kongolekan, a village of small mud brick houses in the southwestern cotton heartland.
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 reviewed by Reuters, 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 revenue in 2016 was more than Burkina Faso’s gross domestic product (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 told Reuters. 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 by Reuters 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.
“We exited our cotton business in Burkina Faso due to the increasing challenge in collecting licence fees that had remained due for a significant period, despite Monsanto’s efforts to explore pragmatic solutions,” the company said in an e-mailed response to Reuters’ queries.
The company, which has agreed to a $66bn takeover by Germany’s Bayer, told Reuters its genetic traits transformed Burkina Faso’s cotton sector, improving the lives of 350,000 farmers and the roughly 4-million Burkinabes who depend on them, by increasing production and reducing pesticide use.
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.
“Before the introduction, our capacities should have been reinforced. But all of that fell by the wayside, and that’s on us…. We can’t blame Monsanto alone,” said Zangre, who was employed by the state and said he had never been paid by Monsanto.
But Brian Dowd-Uribe, an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco who has studied the case, said the Burkinabe experience has undermined confidence in Monsanto. He and five other international and Burkinabe researchers and cotton sector officials believe Burkina’s quality problem boiled down to poor breeding processes.
“Here is an issue that was established early on in the breeding process and trial stage that over almost 10 years they were unable to resolve,” he said. “What does that mean in terms of Monsanto’s ability to successfully steward breeding programmes that allow for the … characteristics desired by their partners?”
Monsanto declined to comment on this. It said its Bollgard II technology remained under consideration in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa and was showing good results in trials in Malawi. Authorities in Malawi did not respond to requests for comment.
Africa’s annual cotton exports are worth nearly $1.2bn, according to statistics compiled by the Swiss-based International Trade Centre. SA and Sudan are the only other African nations apart from Burkina Faso to introduce GM cotton so far. Sudan opted to introduce foreign varieties that it knew would produce lower-quality cotton, calculating that the increased output would offset the drop in value, a cotton expert at Sudan’s agriculture ministry said. For now, he said, that bet had paid off.
In Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria, growers have also been testing Bollgard II, but they say Burkina Faso’s experience has made them more cautious. “We are being very sceptical now,” said James Wiyor, executive secretary of Ghana’s Cotton Development Authority.
Mali, Africa’s number two producer and Burkina Faso’s main local rival, says it stuck with conventional, high-quality strains; it says this decision gave it an edge over its GM rivals.
“It’s a shame,” said Jane Dever, a professor and cotton breeder at Texas A&M University, discussing Burkina Faso’s experience, “because (Burkina Faso) really was (Monsanto’s) guinea pig for introducing transgenic cotton into West Africa.”