By Kondwani Hara*

Lilongwe- In 2012, Scientists at Bunda disclosed that the first ever genetically modified cotton ‘confined field trial’ would start 2012/13 growing season at the college. Seed was procured from South Africa which is now celebrating 15 years of growing and commercialization of genetically modified crops.

According to PAN Germany, the example of South Africa is often cited as ‘proof’ of the socio-economic success of GM cotton. There are clear indications that genetically modified cotton puts farmers at economic risk. If world market price fall or there are harvest losses, due, for example to climatic conditions, the risk of incurring debt is very high. In the year 2000, huge rainfalls, which caused drastic flooding in Mozambique hit South Africa and left cotton farmers with debts of US$ 1.2. In 2002, the late onset of the rains led to cotton crop losses, which extended and worsened the debt problem. Malawi, due to the effects of climate change, experience these two scenarios; huge rainfalls in some parts and late onset of rainfalls.

The same type of cotton was grown in India but failed.

Cotton had been a backbone of commercial farming in India state of Andrah Pradesh. Suddenly there entered a pest called an American bollworm. Hundreds of tons of pesticides was spread to get rid of American Bollworm; Andrah Pradesh turned into a pesticide capital of India. Pesticides grew toxic every year, the pest didn’t die.

This was an opportunity for the American-based Monsanto to sell its genetically engineered seed called Bollgard. Monsanto entered into the market with hype never witnessed before in Indian agriculture. The Bollgard came with great promise, desperate farmers trusted this completely. The advertisement said ‘Bollgard resistant Bt varieties could increase the yields by 30 to 40% and require 70% less pesticide.

It sold highest number of seeds in the state. 3 years from that time, Bt cotton had disappeared. The pesticide promise did not come off, farmers had to use pesticides on Bt cotton the way they did on non Bt crops. In the meanwhile, an independent scientific inquiry had been initiated up by a set of CSOs. The group worked at grass root level to find out the impact of the Bt cotton farmers in Andrah Pradesh. The findings were that; over 3 years, Bt farmers only spent 7% less than non Bt famers. Bollgard had very little effect on cotton pest. With fury, a certain farmer had this to say ‘Instead of plucking cotton, we plucked pests. Thieves come in the night, but these corporate robbers robbed us in day light, in front of our eyes’. On the part of resisting the dry spell, Bt cotton did not withstand dry spell.

What happened to their once fertile soils? One farmer said, ‘‘it infected our soils. Prevented second crop from germinating. After the Bt crop, land looks saline, white and is hard. Normal cotton field soils are soft and loose. We planted chilli on that field. It did not germinate. On non-Bt fields we have planted turmeric. It has grown well, so as maize. On Bt fields, chilli did not germinate.’’ Some farmers spent 10,000 Rupees/acre, could not even recover 2000 rupees.

The ecological effects of cultivation of genetically modified cotton are unclear. Up to now, there have been no studies in any African country sufficiently investigating the effects of genetically modified cotton on the environment ,but in case of India, Bt cotton made Andrah Pradesh soils to be barren.

Then came the great news; GENETIC ENGINEERING APPROVAL COMMITTEE, The regulatory body of the government of India had banned the Bollgard cotton of Monsanto. Farmers and CSOs led a three year struggle against Bollgard cotton. There was hope that that struggle would grow into a movement across India and make that country GMO- free land some day.

There are ecological dangers and above all, economic risks coupled with the cultivation of GM cotton. Particularly marginalized small-scale farmers are dependent on support when growing the cash crop. They are not in situation to run a great risk growing Bt cotton. This makes it clear that GM cotton does not fulfill the criteria of sustainability for African small-scale farmers.

*Kondawani Hara, is a social conditions rural basis needs basket at center for social concerns (cfsc), Lilongwe, Malawi