All over the world, there is controversy over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) especially with regard to their use in producing food. The key areas of the controversy are whether GM food should be labelled, the role of government regulators, the effect of GM crops on health and the environment, the effect on pesticide resistance, the impact of GM crops for farmers, and the role of GM crops in feeding the world population. In Africa, the concerns are more and are quite different too. There are concerns about developed countries and big multinationals using GMOs to exploit the continent, foster Africa’s dependence on them for farm inputs and patent license. There are also concerns about Africa being used as a testing ground for new GMOs to the detriments of the continent and her people. There are a high-level scepticism and rejection of GMOs in Africa. There are several conspiracy theories and mistrust for western countries and multinationals about GMOs. This is due to the continent lack of scientific knowledge especially on the what and how of biotechnology and hundreds of years of exploitation of the continent by the West: from slavery to colonialism to unfair trade and the emergence of HIV in the continent.
The failure of African leaders to invest in science, technology, strong system and structure needed to develop the continent continues to make Africa vulnerable to exploitation. The continent heavily relies on developed countries for technologies that are mostly tied to terms and conditions that always put African countries at a disadvantage. When many Africans talk about why GMOs should be rejected on the continent they always make reference to Burkina Faso’s GM cotton deal with Monsanto of the United States which caused damage to the economy of Burkina Faso. This is being held on to as it reinforced their belief that GMOs are bad for Africa and that the west is not to be trusted. According to an investigation by Reuters, the GM cotton failure in Burkina Faso was actually mainly due to a bad deal entered by Burkina Faso with a disreputable company, and bad leadership on the part of the Burkinabes.
Burkina Faso, Africa’s top cotton grower, ahead of Mali, Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria produce cotton of quality that is one of the highest in the world. Their cotton fetched top prices because its a long (high-quality) fibre cotton and the sector employs around a fifth of the country’s workforce, according to the World Bank.
In the 1990s, the country was faced with pest problem – first whiteflies, then bollworms which feed on flower buds, withering them and damaging fruits. Pesticides were ineffective in controlling the pests and farmers were spending around $60 million every year to protect their cotton, and even then losing 20 per cent to 65 per cent of their crops. Losses could even rise to 90 per cent in fields that had not been treated with pesticides. At this stage, the country’s government decided to use biotechnology to solve the problem. One would expect this will lead to huge investment in biotech research project and technology transfer program in the country but the government decided to go the usual way of purchasing solutions instead of producing them, the made a deal with Monsanto, the controversial American Biotech company in early 2003.
The Monsanto’s Bollgard II, a low quality (short fibre) GM cotton that was being grown in the United States was tested and confirmed to be effective against the pests., as It contains a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, that wards off insect larvae. Monsanto was asked to breed the Bt gene into their native cotton so they could marry its pest resistance with their long fibres. To introduce a gene, breeders cross a plant already containing it with a second parent possessing the other desired traits in a process called backcrossing, then the first hybrid is bred with the second parent continuously increase the purity of the desired characteristic. But instead of six or seven backcrosses needed to get over 99 per cent purity, Monsanto in a hurry carried out just two backcrosses before introducing the new variety, for commercialisation. Tests conducted by Burkina Faso’s agricultural research institute, 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 before the commercial launch, Burkina Faso’s government tried to introduce new liability provisions to the deal to commit Monsanto to compensate the cotton company and its associates if there were problems but U.S. government intervened on behalf of Monsanto and the Prime Minister of Burkina Faso changed the administrative order to meet Monsanto’s terms. Monsanto later pledged to fix the quality problems ahead of the commercial launch but never did. In 2010-2011, GM cotton made up over half of the cotten production in Burkina Faso, but only 21 per cent of the crop reached the previous quality standard. This resulted in a problem as farmers couldn’t sell the low-quality cotton. Through in July 2015 Monsanto wrote to the Burkina growers saying the quality problems had been offset by other benefits, By 2016, the Inter-Professional Cotton Association of Burkina (AICB), the cotton sector’s umbrella organisation, claimed the cotton companies’ losses had reached around $85 million over the previous five seasons but Monsanto only paid about $3 million in compensation for the first two seasons. Burkina Faso’s cotton continued to suffer till 2015 and the cotton lost its premium pricing.
Apart from Burkina Faso, South Africa and Sudan are the only other African nations to have introduced GM cotton so far. These countries didn’t have trouble with GM cotton like Burkina Faso, 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 and the bet has paid off so far. It was obvious that the Burkinabes not only made a bad deal they lacked the proper tools and technical knowledge to introduce the Bt genes themselves as they could have avoided the mistake by carrying out themselves. The universities in the country and state agencies lacked the capacity to support such a project, especially that Monsanto never based technical staff in the country. Instead, Monsanto developed the new Bt varieties in the United States, paid around $350,000 annually to fund research institute INERA’s work on the GM cotton, and flew in its own scientists only when required.
Africa’s must embrace GMOs now or continue to lag behind the developed nations and rely on them for food. GMOs production technology is no longer as it has already taken root in developed countries more than 20 years ago. GM crops are consumed in China, the European Union and the US. Africa countries must start developing GMOs locally for their own national interest and stop relying on the west for an already packaged GMOs solution. They must commit more funding on biotechnology research for national development.