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Burkina Faso's GMO cotton mistakes won't be repeated in Africa, stakeholders say

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

A cotton field in Burkina Faso. Photo by Joseph Opoku Gakpo 

Stakeholders in the agricultural biotechnology sector are offering assurances that the problems that prompted Burkina Faso to temporarily halt cultivation of genetically engineered cotton won’t be repeated with GMO crops in other African countries.

The right lessons have been learned, they say, and this will inform how future projects are rolled out to avoid similar difficulties.

The GMO cultivar (Bt cotton) introduced in Burkina Faso in 2008 had been engineered with genes from Bacillus thuringiensis, a soil bacteria, to give it an inherent ability to resist attacks by bollworms — pests that have the potential to destroy up to 90 percent of yield on cotton farms.

The Bt cotton cultivar — introduced by agricultural firm Monsanto — succeeded in controlling pests on Burkina Faso cotton farms, reducing the use of pesticides by up to 70 percent. But challenges associated with the marketability of the shorter fiber length of the cultivar caused authorities in that country to pause planting of the variety in 2015.

Jonathan Jenkinson, the Asia Africa Breeding Lead at Monsanto, attributed the problem to the lack of an ongoing Burikina-based breeding program to improve upon the cultivar, which allowed undesired traits like short fiber length to re-emerge.

“What happened is that Burkina had a biotech crop approved,” Jenkinson explained. “They did not have an ongoing breeding program to improve the variety. So what was happening was, the [bollworm resistance] trait was there and it was providing all the necessary benefits, but the varieties that were being released were not new and improved ones every year.” He is convinced the problem would not have emerged if there was a continuous program in Burkina Faso to improve upon the Bt cotton during each of the eight years it was grown in that country.

A number of African countries, including Malawi and Nigeria, are currently undertaking confined field trials of Bt cotton as part of the regulatory process that leads to commercialization.

“Very soon next year [2018], Bt cowpea and Bt cotton should be ready for commercialization….,” Dr. Rose Susan Gidado, assistant director of the National Biotechnology Development Agency in Nigeria, said in an interview.  “Some farmers are already aware… For cotton, I think it is going to be available in about 10 states in Nigeria.”

Nigerians are expecting the introduction of the GM cotton to be a major agricultural game changer, helping to stem the destruction by bollworm pests that are estimated to cause a 40 percent yield loss in West Africa’s cotton production.

Monsanto's Jonathan Jenkinson. Photo by Joseph Opoku Gakpo 

Asked what will be different in the other countries, Jenkinson said the problem will not recur because the right conditions are in place to ensure the biotech cultivars are continually improved upon so undesired traits don’t emerge in future. “Part of the work in Nigeria and Malawi is that they have ongoing breeding programs. So the lesson is a very simple one. It is that in order for a biotech crop to have an impact on the market, it has to be side by side with an ongoing germplasm improvement program,” he said.

Ghana last year suspended field trials of GM cotton following the decision of Monsanto to close down its office in Burkina Faso, which was providing support to the work in Ghana. Though Dr. Emmanuel Chamba, principal investigator on the Bt cotton project in Ghana, announced the decision to suspend the work, he is confident that the situation in Ghana is far different than what occurred Burkina Faso.

“After two years of the on-station confined field trials, the next step was to go to the farmers’ field,” Chamba explained. “After which we will be thinking of commercial release. Unfortunately, because of the situation in Burkina Faso, Monsanto pulled out. But we weren’t going to repeat what happened in Burkina Faso.”

Edgar Traore, coordinator of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) in Burkina Faso, is equally convinced his country has learned the lessons with Bt cotton and previous mistakes won’t be repeated if they get the opportunity to re-introduce it on the market. “We only need to do more back crosses up to seven times and it will be OK,” he said. “We are going to do that.” 

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