News Column

Lessons from the success stories on biotech cotton in African countries

July 9, 2014

Lominda Afedraru & Paul Adude -1

For 18 years, a number of countries have been commercialising crops, which are bred using biotechnology. US was the first to commercialise Bt corn and Bt soy bean in 1996, which are genetically modified varieties that contain a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which acts as a natural insecticide against pests. South Africa followed suit with Bt maize in the same year.

African countries that are conducting biotechnology research, do it according to their own priorities. But those countries that have commercialised biotech crops, have focused on Bt cotton.

Collaboration Dr Woldeyesus Senebo, programme officer, African Biosafety Network of Experts (ABNE), notes that Ugandan farmers can learn lessons from Burkina Faso and Sudan, whose farmers are reaping big from Bt cotton. There is also Ghana, where trials are being conducted in farmers' fields minus laboratory and confined trials and Malawi, where field trials are underway.

In Uganda, confined field trials on Genetically Modified (GM) cotton were conducted by National Agricultural Research Organisation (Naro) in collaboration with the US multinational company, Monsanto, in 2009/2010 and 2010/2011.

In each of these seasons, Bt cotton varieties were planted at National Semi-arid Resources Research Institute in Serere District and Mubuku Prison Farm in Kasese District. They were tested for two traits; bollworm resistance and herbicide tolerance.

Bollworms cause losses of up to 100 per cent if uncontrolled. And control using pesticides is not only expensive but hazardous to the environment. So, the varieties of cotton tested had genes from Bt, which enable the cotton to produce proteins that are toxic to bollworms, hence controlling them with promising results.

The second trial was Roundup-ready cotton for management of weeds. They have tolerance for the herbicide Roundup. When such crops are sprayed with the herbicide, the weeds die but the crop remains.

Trials The results were overwhelming because all weeds in cotton under Kasese and Serere conditions were controlled. The yields were also good. Monsanto developed these technologies and also funded the trials, which were supposed to have run for three seasons, before a final decision could be made.

The plan is that the genes responsible for the two traits would then be introgressed into Uganda's cotton varieties, making them both Bt and Roundup Ready before eventual on farm testing and commercialisation.

However, according to Dr Theresa Ssengoba, a senior scientist who has served in Naro in different capacities, the trial was halted due to controversies over the law to enable scientists roll out this technology to farmers. This caused the Monsanto team to halt availability of the required BT genes to the Ugandan scientists.

Other cases It is a requirement for the countries willing to adopt the technology to follow the procedures as guided by Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and national biosafety law in each country. "We are neither pro, nor against this technology, but we help those who want to adopt the technology on its safe use," explained Dr Woldeyesus during the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), which was held in Kampala last week.

He added: "Uganda and Nigeria started conducting research minus any law but the scientists followed their own country's biosafety policies. Countries like Ghana and Malawi began their research as emergency cases by going straight to trials in farmer preferred fields.

Farmers from Ghana were getting seeds from those in Burkina Faso and already growing the crop. Countries like Kenya have the law and may commercialise their products any time."

Profit Confined field trials in Burkina Faso were conducted 2003-2005 and in 2006, in the main cotton growing areas. In 2009, cotton was planted in 8,500 hectares for seed production. The same year, farmers planted cotton on 120,000 hectares and in 2010, this increased to 200,000.

In Sudan, the government came up with a policy of distributing two Chinese Bt-cotton varieties. These were evaluated in 2010/2011 and 2011/2012, in open field trials in both irrigated and rain-fed locations. The Bt variety out-yielded the non-Bt varieties five to six times in sites with high bollworm infestation. There was an overall increase of 129-166 per cent in the combined field trials

Pius Elubu, who was then the trial manager in the Ugandan Bt cotton trials, analysed cotton growing to be practiced mainly by peasant farmers. This is grown on land ranging from two to five acres. With data on economic gain showing that farmers earn a profit of $39 (about Shs101,000) per hectare with increasing income of $61.88 (Shs160,000) per hectare, this shows how much Ugandan farmers can benefit from growing Bt cotton.

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Source: Daily Monitor, The (Uganda)

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