Dr. Valentine S. Edgar Traure
Despite agriculture is the mainstay of the economy in Africa, it is compounded by various challenges which hamper its productivity. High dependency on rain, less utilization of inputs, the threat of herbs and pests, more and more the unprecedented climate change and global warming makes the sector unreliable. However, overcoming the challenge is not easy and addressing the problem by ready made solution is also not viable and needs multifaceted approaches. Among the various ideas forwarded by scientists as solution is the application of biotechnology in farms. But side by side with it supportive measures relevant to diagnose the whole aspect of the sector is essential. Most farmers produce crops both for food and for cash and a number of countries produce and earn considerable money from cash crops such as cotton. But due to the disturbance of pests, their productivity has stagnated. Mitigating the problem through spraying chemical does not bring the required result. Hence, countries are forced to resort to the application of BT cotton which is a Genetically Engineered crop. Burkina Faso, South Africa and Sudan have made a stride in experimenting BT cotton. They have achieved better results in controlling pests which damage the crops and allow to raise productivity.
Dr. Valentine S. Edgar Traure is a plant breeder and virologist who works at the National Research Institute and recently this writer got a chance to talk with him about the progress made by experimenting BT cotton in Burkina Faso. As to him, cotton is produced for more than 50 years in that country but for decades the farming practice was critically challenged by pests which eat and destroy the young seedlings. Herbs also damage the crop. As a result, farmers lose up to 80 per cent of their product and the situation impoverish farmers.
In the past, in order to prevent pests and herbs, farmers use to utilize imported chemicals, which were expensive and environmentally unfriendly. Because of the acuteness of the problem, sometime farmers were forced to resort to the use expired chemicals hazardous to human health. But their effort was in vain. In addition spraying chemicals on farmlands was labour intensive, which consumes too much time. To save the crop from damage and to alleviate farmers appalling situation, the government found other solutions as a way out.
According to Traure, transgenic technology, applied on cotton plant, is mostly practised in the USA,China and India. The natural toxin from Bacillus thuringiens is being used long time ago to control pests in organic agriculture. Drawing a lesson from these countries and assessing the merits and demerits of the transgenic crop on the environment and the biodiversity, the government of Burkina Faso began to negotiate with the sole owner of the patent right of the Bt cotton. The owner, who is an American company known as Monsanto and reached to agreement. According the agreement, even though Burkina hybrids Bt cotton originates from the company, which is compatible to its cotton varieties, it pays a royalty to the company. And in 2007 a pilot study through experimenting new varieties in farmers fields began. The move was followed by multiplication of BT cotton seed and cultivation of field commercial production in 2009. He further said that, when the experiment was in progress, the National Science Research Institute stepped up in Bt cotton adoption. But before that it prepared field trials by various stakeholders comprising, researchers, policy makers, technical Ministries, cotton companies and international organizations. The main result from farmers field visits indicated that Bt cotton was effective in controlling pests. It contributed in reducing volume of pesticides and labour. It has also proved that the BT cotton did not bring unwanted outcomes on the environment, no anomalies were observed in the behaviour of bee colonies and on the biodiversity with in the Bt cotton plots. It is evident that Bt cotton contributed to push Burkina Faso from 11th position in the years 1990s to 1st cotton producer since 2010 in Africa with about 600,000 ton per year.
Nevertheless, there are different views reflected on the success story of Burkina in resolving decades long cotton production shortcomings particularly, due to pest invasion of the crops. Gelen Stone, a writer on biotechnology, practised it specially in Africa and India. As to him, evidence of Bt cotton outcomes from the research team sponsored by Monsanto carried out in 2009 showed that Bt cotton produced yield increased by 18.2 per cent. This approach boosted farmers profit despite high Bt seed cost. However, these studies did not report how these yields were calculated. Later studies drawing from the same household survey reported that an average Bt cotton farming family gaining 50 per cent more profit than the conventional one. Nonetheless, most farmers were enthusiastic about Bt cotton primarily as a tool to save valuable labour time. By the year 2014 more than 140,000 small holder farmers were cultivating Bt cotton representing 70 per cent of the total cotton production in one of Africa's largest cotton producing countries. It is understood that in Ethiopia the organic type of cotton plant is highly vulnerable to pests. As a result, the production is significantly reduced.
By now the country is forced to import cotton from abroad to meet the demand for textile industries. And to bring the long lasting solution for cotton farms consensus has been reached to experiment Bt cotton here. The Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute authorized to experiment Bt cotton by the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Climate Change and a field trial is under way in seventh agro-ecological zones.
BY ABEBE WOLDE GIORGIS