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Special Report: How Monsanto's GM cotton sowed trouble in Africa

Reuters  |  BOBO-DIOULASSO, Burkina Faso 

By Joe Bavier

BOBO-DIOULASSO, Faso (Reuters) - In 2000, farmers in Faso, Africa's top grower, were desperate. Their fetched top prices because its high-quality fibre lent a luxurious sheen to clothing and bedsheets. But pests - bollworms - were threatening the crop.

Even when you dropped the bollworm larvae into a bucket of poison, farmers said, they kept swimming.

U.S. seeds and pesticide company proposed an answer: a genetically modified strain of called Bollgard II, which it had already introduced in America and was marketing worldwide. GM was established in large-scale farming in South Africa, but not among the smallholders who produce most African The farmers agreed to a trial and the country introduced seeds with the gene in 2008.

The resulting was pest-free, and the harvest more abundant. By 2015, three-quarters of all Faso's production was GM, and it became a showcase for the technology among smallholders in From 2007 to 2015, delegations from at least 17 different African nations visited to see it.

But there was a problem. While the bug-resistant genes produced more volume, the quality fell. Last season, the farmers of Faso abandoned the GM varieties.

"Genetically modified cotton, it's not good today. It's not good tomorrow," said farmer Paul Badoun, picking apart a lumpy handful of raw in his field near Kongolekan, a village of small mud brick houses in the southwestern heartland.

The country's GM experience, told by more than three dozen insiders, farmers, scientists and company officials as well as in confidential documents reviewed by Reuters, highlights a little-known quandary faced by genetic engineering. For Faso's growers, GM ended up as a trade-off between quantity and quality. For Monsanto, whose $13.5 billion in revenues in 2016 were more than Faso's GDP, it proved uneconomical to tailor the product closely to a market niche.

The Burkinabes knew from the start that American varieties containing Monsanto's gene could not deliver the quality of their home-grown crop, company officials and researchers told But they pressed on because agreed to breed its pest-resistant genes into their native plants, which they hoped would protect the and keep its premium value. That, they say, was a failure.

In July 2015 wrote to the growers saying the quality problems had been offset by other benefits. Asked by about the quality problems and whether it promised to fix them, the company did not respond. Instead, it pointed to a dispute that erupted with Faso over payments for seed-licensing fees.

"We exited our business in Faso due to the increasing challenge in collecting license fees that had remained due for a significant period, despite Monsanto's efforts to explore pragmatic solutions," the company said in an emailed response to Reuters' queries.

The company, which has agreed to a $66 billion takeover by Germany's Bayer, told its genetic traits transformed Faso's sector, improving the lives of 350,000 farmers and the roughly 4 million Burkinabes who depend on them, by increasing production and reducing pesticide use.

Roger Zangre, a Burkinabe agricultural scientist who helped bring to Faso, said Burkina's technical shortcomings were partly to blame for the problems with the GM crops. "Before the introduction, our capacities should have been reinforced. But all of that fell by the wayside, and that's on us ... We can't blame alone," said Zangre, who was employed by the state and said he had never been paid by

But Brian Dowd-Uribe, an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco who has studied the case, said the Burkinabe experience has undermined confidence in He and five other international and Burkinabe researchers and sector officials believe Burkina's quality problem boiled down to poor breeding processes.

"Here is an issue that was established early on in the breeding process and trial stage that over almost 10 years they were unable to resolve," he said. "What does that mean in terms of Monsanto's ability to successfully steward breeding programmes that allow for the ... characteristics desired by their partners?"

declined to comment on this. It said its Bollgard II technology remains under consideration in several countries in sub-Saharan and is showing good results in trials in Malawi. Authorities in Malawi did not respond to requests for comment.

Africa's annual exports are worth nearly $1.2 billion, according to statistics compiled by the Swiss-based International Trade Centre. South and Sudan are the only other African nations apart from Faso to introduce GM so far. 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, a expert at Sudan's agriculture ministry said. For now, he added, that bet has paid off.

In Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria, growers have also been testing Bollgard II, but they say Faso's experience has made them more cautious."We are being very sceptical now," said James Wiyor, executive secretary of Ghana's Development Authority.

Mali, Africa's number two producer and Faso's main local rival, says it stuck with conventional, high-quality strains; it says this decision gave it an edge over its GM rivals.

"It's a shame," said Jane Dever, a professor and breeder at Texas A&M University, discussing Faso's experience, "because (Faso) really was (Monsanto's) guinea pig for introducing transgenic into West "


Faso is big in African cotton, but small in global terms. India, the world leader, grows over 20 times more each year. Even so, depends heavily on exports.

Around a fifth of its workforce participates in the sector, according to the World Bank. Unable to go head-to-head against big producers, Faso instead cultivated quality.

"was one of the most preferred cottons," said Ashwin Subramanian, head of Singapore-based commodities trader Olam International's West African business. "The importing countries in the Far East always preferred The quality was good. The consistency was good. Everything was good."

The country's major pest problems began in the 1990s - first whiteflies, then bollworms which feed on flower buds, withering them and damaging fruits.

Farmers were spending around $60 million every year to protect their cotton, and even then losing 20 percent to 65 percent of their crops, told Losses could rise to 90 percent in fields that had not been treated with pesticides.

In 1995, the government asked Zangre, the local agricultural scientist, to look into biotech solutions. He met officials at a conference in Cameroon in 1999 and the following year helped introduce the company's representatives to officials from Burkina's companies and the farmers' union. Together with government officials, they decide policy for the sector.

In 2003, Burkinabe researchers began testing Bollgard II that was being grown in the United States. Right away, they confirmed it was effective against pests. It contains a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, that wards off insect larvae.

But the quality problems were equally obvious.

quality is most commonly determined by the length of the fibre, or staple, that emerges when a tuft is pulled out of a boll. The longer the fibre or staple, the higher the quality. Monsanto's American Bt produced short fibres, the kind typically used to make fabric for everyday use such as jeans and t-shirts.

"When we started using it, we knew that the American variety wouldn't interest us, because it didn't have the quality we required," said Bazoumana Koulibaly, research head for the programme at Faso's agricultural research institute, INERA.

The Burkinabes said they asked to breed the Bt gene into their native cotton, so they could marry its pest resistance with their long fibres. However, tests conducted by 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

In 2008, Faso's government tried to introduce new liability provisions to the deal, according to a U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks. Then U.S. Ambassador Jeanine Jackson intervened on behalf of

"Upon hearing the of a possible halt to the planned commercialisation of the Bt in Faso, Ambassador discussed the issues with both Prime Minister Tertius Zongo and reps," the cable said. "The PM then interceded and instructed that the administrative order be changed to meet Monsanto's terms."

The Burkinabes initially wanted to commit to compensating the company and its associates if there were problems, according to a memo the industry sent to which was reviewed by The revised administrative order said instead disputes should be handled through legal and regulatory channels and resolved in good faith.

Zongo declined to comment on why he interceded. Jackson, who has now retired from diplomatic service, said she did not recall the details but noted that advocacy of U.S. businesses and investments is usually the "number one task" for ambassadors. did not respond to a request for comment on this point.

introduced the new GM for seed production in the 2008-2009 season. A full-scale commercial launch was scheduled for the following season.

Wilfried Yameogo, the director of Sofitex, Faso's biggest company, said the decision to go ahead was based on a pledge from that it would fix the quality problems ahead of the commercial launch.

"made promises, and we continued to produce it. They said, 'No, no, no. It will be okay.'" Yameogo said. could not confirm whether such a promise was made and did not respond to a request for comment on this.


The growers moved fast. By 2014, GM had surged to almost three-quarters of all the acreage planted in Faso.

In the three seasons before introduced Bt cotton, over 90 percent of its output was classed as high quality medium to long staple by the country's companies. In 2010-2011, GM made up over half of production, but only 21 percent of the crop reached the previous quality standard.

"There was a problem selling this cotton," Agriculture Minister Jacob Ouedraogo told

paid nearly $3 million in compensation to the Burkinabes in those first two seasons due to the quality problems, according to the memo reviewed by Reuters, which was sent in 2015 to complain about losses companies had incurred. declined to comment on this point.

Faso's continued to suffer. In 2014-2015, average Bt fibres from around the country were up to 2.29 mm shorter than the conventional strains. The lost its premium pricing. The impact, according to the Burkinabes, was a drop in the value of its output of at least 3 cents per pound of cotton, or between 2 and 5 percent of the volatile global benchmark price.

Singapore trader Olam International had been among Faso's biggest customers. It had to seek out new buyers, eventually selling on the cheaper output to textile mills in Pakistan, said Olam's West chief Subramanian.


Geneticists like Dever say the problem was the process, not the Bt gene. Retaining specific quality characteristics in new varieties is one of the hardest tasks facing breeders, Dever said.

"It can be done," she said. "You just have to make sure you do the appropriate number of backcrosses and you do the appropriate amount of testing."

To introduce a gene, breeders cross a plant already containing it with a second parent possessing other desired traits - in this case, Burkina's long fibres. They then breed the first hybrid with the second parent. The process, known as a backcross, continues: The more backcrosses, the more the new variety will resemble the second parent.

Zangre and INERA'S Koulibaly said carried out just two backcrosses before introducing the new variety. "Evidently the two backcrosses were insufficient. It was necessary to go further. Breeders will go to six or seven backcrosses to really get over 99 percent purity," Koulibaly said. declined to comment on this.

Dever, who has developed varieties for companies including Bayer, estimated that carrying out three more backcrosses would have pushed back the release date of Bt by at least a year.

Zangre said that if the Burkinabes had possessed the proper tools and technical knowledge to introduce the Bt genes themselves, they could have avoided the mistake.

Yves Carriere, an entomology professor at the University of Arizona who studies Bt crops, arrived in Faso in 2009 planning to set up a programme to monitor the introduction. He was worried, he said: The authorities had plans to head off potential problems, but the universities and state agencies that in the developed world would typically support such a biotechnology launch appeared weak.

"It was rushed. That's for sure ... It was rushed and far from optimal," he said. "It shows the shortcomings of even the largest corporations, which do not have the structure and the means to do everything that needs to be done in developing countries."

For its part, never based technical staff in the country, a former employee who was involved in the process told Instead, he said 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 when required.

declined to say if it had based its own researchers in Faso, but said its activities resulted in significant investments in research and development.


By 2016, the Inter-Professional Association of (AICB), the sector's umbrella organisation, claimed the companies' losses had reached around $85 million over the previous five seasons.

In the final settlement that ended the partnership last December, Yameogo said ceded over $19 million in royalties that the Burkinabes had been withholding. In exchange, the Burkinabes agreed to drop demands for compensation. said the settlement, which it called a "goodwill gesture," was confidential.

For Faso's farmers, Bt cotton's benefits were "barely acceptable," according to a 2016 study by the French government's agricultural research agency, CIRAD. It found farmers made more money, but the new seeds also increased their financial risk.

Faso is now clawing back its reputation. In the 2016-2017 season, the first since it returned to conventional seeds, 98.8 percent of its production was graded as medium to long staple. So far, the bollworms have not returned.

If they do, Burkinabe officials say they aren't turning their backs on GM, although the country does not use the technology at present. However, they say, any varieties must fit their unique needs.

"We still favour the use of biotechnologies," said Yameogo, the company boss. "We've been armed and seasoned by the experience we had with "

(Reporting by Joe Bavier in Bobo-Dioulasso; Additional reporting by Nadoun Coulibaly in Ouagadougou, Khalid Abdelaziz in Khartoum, Arwa Gaballa in Cairo, Tiemoko Diallo in Bamako, Kwasi Kpodo in Accra, Elias Biryabarema in Kampala, Mabvuto Banda in Lilongwe, and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Edited by Sara Ledwith)

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Fri, December 08 2017. 16:55 IST