December 9, 2017

Lessons of the Burkina Faso Bt Cotton Debacle


Cotton as part of a bizarre sculpture. It’s still better crafted than Monsanto’s Bt cotton.

I’ve written so much on GM cotton I’m sick of it, but I’ll point out two salient points brought out in this piece on Burkina Faso’s brief, disastrous experience with Monsanto’s Bt cotton.
1. As I emphasized previously regarding Bt cotton, it’s a rich man’s technology which assumes optimum conditions and highly expensive inputs of fertilizer, irrigated water, and pesticides in order to work.
Today one of the government stooges who touted Monsanto to the country’s cotton farmers is falling on his sword, loyal to the last:

Roger Zangre, a Burkinabe agricultural scientist who helped bring Monsanto to Burkina 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 Monsanto alone,” said Zangre, who was employed by the state and said he had never been paid by Monsanto.

But this makes no sense. If you sell a technology to people who don’t possess the technical infrastructure to use it, like selling cars to people who have no roads, then you’re committing a fraud. Monsanto, and government shills like this one, of course waved off all such concerns in the beginning. Just as to this day Monsanto’s shills still claim that Bt cotton is good for small farmers, and still look for marks among small cotton farmers anywhere on earth it can find them.
Sure enough, “in Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria, growers have also been testing Bollgard II, but they say Burkina Faso’s experience has made them more cautious. “We are being very sceptical now,” said James Wiyor, executive secretary of Ghana’s Cotton Development Authority.” This proves that Monsanto will tout this shoddy, high-maintenance, extremely expensive product to anyone it can gull, and is telling them the same lies it told the Burkinabes, and the South Africans of Makathini Flats, and the Indians.

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

“Monsanto made promises, and we continued to produce it. They said, ‘No, no, no. It will be okay.’” Yameogo said.

2. Also as I’ve discussed previously, Monsanto always has disdained every aspect of agriculture and plant breeding except for its transgenic traits (and of course its pesticides). In particular it had a grandiose notion that its traits would be the smart “software” which would be the key monopoly input for the stupid “hardware” of the natural and conventionally bred plant genome. Their idea was that they’d become analogous to Microsoft and Windows. (Cf. Dan Charles’s Lords of the Harvest for more on this.)
Under pressure of reality Monsanto was forced to accept that the transgene is worthless if it’s inserted into what one of its Australian affiliates called “dogshit germplasm”. One type of dogshit germplasm was the low-quality no-frills varieties Monsanto originally wanted to sell to farmers everywhere on a global one-size-fits-all basis. We see here a typical example of the scientific reasoning and general intelligence level of pro-GM activists.
A second type is where, even after Monsanto bowed to reality and bred its transgene into higher-quality varieties, it then brings one of these varieties to a place to which it is unsuited. In the case of Burkina Faso, Monsanto sent varieties bred for American cultivation to the African country, where country-based breeders under intense time pressure did a shoddy rush job of crossbreeding the American variety with Burkinabean varieties.

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

[Geneticist Jane] Dever, who has developed cotton varieties for companies including Bayer, estimated that carrying out three more backcrosses would have pushed back the release date of Bt cotton 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 Carrière, an entomology professor at the University of Arizona who studies Bt crops, arrived in Burkina Faso in 2009 planning to set up a programme to monitor the introduction. He was worried, he said: The Burkina 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 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, Monsanto never based technical staff in the country, a former Monsanto employee who was involved in the process told Reuters. Instead, he said 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 when required…

For Monsanto, whose $13.5 billion in revenues in 2016 were more than Burkina Faso’s GDP, it proved uneconomical to tailor the product closely to a market niche.

The result was a steep decline in the quality and salability of Burkinabean cotton. (Note also how this is yet another example of foisting the technology on a customer lacking the infrastructure to use it effectively.)
“Geneticists like Dever say the problem was the process, not the Bt gene.” By “the process” they mean the technical backcrossing process, while by “the Bt gene” they mean the transgene, but also the entire paradigm of GM crops. But on the contrary the Burkina Faso fiasco is a microcosm of how GMOs don’t work, solve problems which don’t exist and make existing problems worse, and are deployed with zero concern for any context or value other than profit, power, and the religious commitment to the idea of genetic engineering as such. The problem is indeed the entire process, and the entire paradigm of genetic engineering.
Meanwhile: “Mali, Africa’s number two producer and Burkina 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.”


  1. Trying to explain to Monsanto apologists (agriculturalists, scientism fanboys, nutritionists etc.) always felt eerily similar to attempting to convince your sweet but self-defeating female friend that her current abusive boyfriend isn’t right for her, and holds her back in every aspect of her life.

    Stockholm syndrome is very real in the kidnapping of the agricultural sciences by corporations. Methinks there are many reasons for this, but the main one being a deep fear of being left out of financial/career opportunities by the shill-hopefuls. One day we will all wake up to the truth that corporations will never bring us what we want: healthy food, healthy communities, resiliency, harmony, love, and yes, honest science.

    In spite of my experiences with the brainwashed African Alliance for Science victims, I hold tremendous faith that Africans will prevail in their fight to reclaim an agroecological paradigm on their continent. They strike me as more connected to the earth, more aligned with critical thinking, more willing to take direct action. B.F. is a perfect example of how to kick Monsanto out of a country.

    Comment by Bob — December 9, 2017 @ 12:49 pm

    • You describe well one part of the cult atmosphere. Although has it really been a kidnapping? According to stuff I’ve read like First the Seed the universities were actively gung ho for biotech starting in the early 1980s and were bought cheaply indeed.

      But yeah, that combination of cultism and careerism is enough to account for the fidelity of professionals directly concerned with biotech and agriculture, and the cultism (along with a Mafia-type “Our Thing” attitude) can account for STEM types in general. As for the broader strata of non-agriculture, non-STEM professional and pseudo-educated types, it’s probably a general ideological commitment to technocracy, the sense that the idea of this kind of technology is a shibboleth of technocratic ideology, and the (correct) sense that biotech is a crucial sector for the continuation of the neoliberal technocratic economy, to which they also are committed.

      I too have high hopes that the Africans will resist corporate agricultural imperialism and seize their unique opportunity to transition directly from their traditional smallholder agriculture to modern scientific agroecology.

      Amen to humanity waking up from its corporate nightmare.

      Comment by Russ — December 9, 2017 @ 3:29 pm

      • Indeed, I guess the kidnapping analogy is a little too kind to those who willingly signed up for the corporate ride, in spite of all the evidence of corruption and lack of rigor and ethics. Haven’t read First Seed yet!

        I love the “Our Thing” terminology, did you invent it or lift it from elsewhere? I’ve heard you use it before and it sums up in two clean words exactly how I’ve felt about the whole thing. I can always tell a technophile knows nothing about agriculture when I ask them for SPECIFIC benefits of “GMOs” and get a blank stare back, or a word-for-word talking point. It truly has been adopted that we need this application of genetic manipulation, but the details sadly become rather horrific and silly when put into practice. The result is the idiotic Bt paradigm described by you above, and even more stupidity in the form of “non-browning apples” and the like.

        Any “real” benefits such as Vit. A fortification and photsynthesis improvement remain a pipe dream, empty promise, always a decade away. Of course, the actual need for these applications is non-existent, save for stoking the ego of the Bill Nye/NdT/Cornell types.

        On a semi-related note, I heard a fantastic rebuttal to the non-browning apple stupidity claim of “reducing food waste” – any such apple slices will come packaged in useless plastic anyways, adding a much greater net waste to any supposed benefits … which of course are non-existent. No one in their right mind is concerned about tossed brown apple cores, such a nothing problem.

        Comment by Bob — December 9, 2017 @ 6:04 pm

      • You’re saying they call the apple cores “food waste”? And just what kind of apples would purchasers think the slices came from, coreless apples? Actually it wouldn’t surprise me if in some vague way the ignorant buyer of prepackaged sliced apples thinks they never had cores in the first place, in the same way their basic mindset is that food comes from the supermarket.


        So yeah, it’s good to shoot back, how about that plastic bag, since at least that’s visible to everyone. (That causes me to wonder what becomes of the cores of factory-processed apples. Are they given/sold to composting outfits or what. I’ll have to look that up.)

        I invented the application of Cosa Nostra/Our Thing to the way the STEM fraternity understands everyone is supposed to support unquestioningly certain core engineering projects, close ranks against criticism, discipline straying sheep like Nye, ostracize apostates like Seralini. (I think it was the Nye incident, and the way the fraternity disciplined him even before his visit to Monsanto, which first caused the analogy to occur to me.)

        Exactly right that even GMOs engineered for agronomic traits or product quality are a fraud.

        1. Many are hoaxes, most notoriously golden rice.

        2. Even where they really exist, there’s invariably a better, less expensive, safer non-GM variety already in existence. I’ve called this an iron law of GMOs. I’ve never yet heard of an exception.

        3. And then of course the only reason e.g. a biofortified GMO like golden rice could be considered in principle “necessary” is that the people’s ability to grow their own nutritious food was destroyed by that same corporate system. So in principle golden rice is an example of breaking someone’s legs with a baseball bat and then saying I’ll sell you these crutches.

        Of course any commercialized golden rice would also be Bt etc., therefore the same old poison plant.

        First the Seed is a great book. I learned a lot from it and highly recommend it.

        Comment by Russ — December 10, 2017 @ 1:51 am

      • Speaking of Stockholm Syndrome, I’ve been reading a lot on the 2017 dicamba offensive as research toward a series of pieces I plan to write. One of many things that strikes me is how commonly farmers who were damaged by volatilization (at least the ones quoted in media pieces) insist that they still think dicamba has a place and that Monsanto “has done lots of good for farmers” (a typical quote). In the same vein, they’ve been brainwashed into thinking there’s something wrong with objecting to being assaulted like this. Even one of the farmers suing Monsanto went out of his way to say “I don’t want to sound like I’m whining.” That’s the culture out there. And then every weed scientist who’s been tallying the damage assumes that the real tally must be much higher because most farmers would feel averse to even filing a complaint.

        Comment by Russ — December 10, 2017 @ 6:06 am

      • I was merely remarking on how no one is throwing away unused apple slices in droves, but this stupid logic is justification for a completely useless GMO. And the non-browning works thru apple immune silencing… hmmmm, what could go wrong there??!
        Although those are good questions about apple waste you bring up.

        Of course, plastics and other cavemen-era technologies perfectly exemplify a regression labeled as progress by the “American Chemistry Council” and other anti-science hacks. Same with the unbridled use of the internal comb. engine. I always hear technocrats wax poetic about such developments, and in the same breath decry climate change and mass human-induced damage to the environment. These are not smart, well-rounded people.

        I have the Alliance idiots telling me to get in line with the Nobel letter signees in support of Golden Rice. I wonder what psychological phenomena cause someone to blame everyone (ie Greenpeace) but the responsible party for GR’s failure.

        I love how these people laugh at the idea of getting people out of poverty as impractical, but have no problem throwing millions of dollars at a useless product. This is the definition of first world technocratic privilege. “We’ll further the tech under the guise of helping you, just don’t expect anything in return.”

        The dicamba debacle is a perfect example of the brainwashing of American farmers. Even the term “weed scientist” must have become an oxymoron in today’s woeful ag paradigm. Although I do sense a small degree of these southern farmers and scientists who refuse to put up with this bullshit. They are the minority though.

        On a related note, not only is the damage from Dicamba underrepresented in soy fields, but almost completely ignored in how it affects small non-commodity farmers of fruits, veggies, etc… you know, REAL farmers. It’s a sad day when actual food producers have to bow down and accept lashings from a commodity system that only feeds enslaved animals, disease rates, climate change, and mistrust.

        Comment by Bob — December 10, 2017 @ 1:06 pm

      • The non-browning is just a cosmetic effect which causes decaying slices to look more fresh than they are, right? A kind of consumer fraud. That’s why I’ve said people should call it the Botox apple.

        I agree that we need to highlight not just what a shoddy product GMOs are but how regressive they are, how they’re part of a an antiquated, backward agricultural paradigm. Call their supporters “Luddites” even. (I know that’s the same historically inaccurate use of the term as the way the enemy uses it, but I think imposing accuracy in that case is a lost cause.)

        (In general, I think the movement’s been doing very well about publicizing the health dangers of pesticides and GMOs but needs to do better publicizing how the things don’t work, comprise a dinosaur technology, and how there’s nothing to be admired in them even for those who are prone to admire effective technology.)

        As for the Nobble rabble, they’re the same idiots as any other group of idiots. They know nothing about golden rice and don’t want to know anything about it. They like the “idea” of it, and that’s all that matters. That’s why they’re impervious to evidence or rational argument.

        You’re right that they’re very stupid people. Even assuming competence in their own narrow disciplines (which I don’t assume; look at what a retraction-prone hack Pam Ronald is even in her specialty), they’re ignorant about science and engineering outside that specialty, let alone about broader knowledge beyond STEM, and are morbidly stupid where it comes to any kind of general wisdom. That’s why they viscerally loathe philosophy: Its very existence hints to them how stupid they are and gives them an inferiority complex.

        Agree that weed scientists, like entomologists, have been somewhat more truly scientific and therefore skeptical than other disciplines, but still on the whole have been shills. They’re part of the crowd I was talking about in the last comment. You’ll read what seems like a blistering denunciation of not just dicamba but implicitly of the herbicide paradigm as such, but at the end they always say “we need these tools including dicamba, just need to use them more intelligently.”

        And then they don’t even really mean that. The exact same Arkansas Plant Board which imposed an emergency ban on dicamba starting last July, and which recently voted unanimously to impose an April 15th deadline for application in 2018, at the same time voted to authorize 2,4-D cotton for 2018. And some of the exact same weed scientists who have been sounding the alarm about dicamba were quoted blandly saying about the Agent Orange cotton, this should work just fine.

        The whole culture makes people stupid and often insane. There’s nothing to be done from within; we need a completely new cultural movement built from without.

        Comment by Russ — December 11, 2017 @ 7:17 am

      • Botox apple! lol!

        Agreed there’s not enough focus on the regressive nature of the GM paradigm. “It’s the sign of an un-evolved civilization to label regression as progress”. I feel the vast majority of “anti” GMO types like you and me got into this based on this understanding. Rather than how the industry paints us – as idiotic luddites (weaponized phrase) who think Frankenfoods are going to kill them with one bite.

        What I find funny is to look at the heros of scientists: Einstein, Feynman, Heisenberg. These guys weren’t perfect but for God’s sake at least they philosophized and cared about the broader human condition. It’s so sad when a discipline loses touch with such an important thread. Those previous scientists talked all day about the implications of their work/tech, today’s fake scientists bitch and moan about people not accepting their blatant imperialism. Fox is guarding the hen house now.

        As a “science” type (math and physics geek, that’s what got me into Cornell), it’s been an uncomfortable awakening that staying in a STEM paradigm would have literally retarded my growth of mind and soul. I feel very sorry for anyone who has survived such an education, in spite of them usually making well over 100k a year as engineers, doctors etc.

        It doesn’t help that Bill Nye and NdT types are non-ironically crying “philosophy is dead” and that science has “replaced” it. If you think science can replace anything, you’re an idiot. That’s just what these guys want though, mindless STEM robots cranking out gadgets for the corporate state.

        That’s what I always appreciated about your work, Latham’s etc. is the 100% lack of wavering and dedication to change. That’s why I named my project GMO WTF, to show how idiotic and swear-word-inducing this paradigm is. You’re right, 2,4 D is a perfect litmus for the obedience of scientists.

        Comment by Bob — December 11, 2017 @ 11:39 am

      • They like Einstein from a distance but would despise his politics if he were around today speaking out. Fritz Haber is a practitioner more along their line, both in what he actually engineered and in his ideology. The Haber-Bosch process and weaponized poison gas, Haber’s two great contributions, combine to provide a superb example of how there’s never been a clear line between synthetic fertilizer, civilian use of pesticides, and weaponized gas and ammonia-based explosives. Like Shiva says, the “green revolution” was a continuation of WWII by other means, the explosives factories refurbished to make fertilizer.

        And then Haber didn’t just offer the idea of weaponized gas but was obsessed with providing the German army with the most deadly gas weapons he could engineer. He wanted maximum lethality, on scientific/engineering principle. In every way he was far more typical of today’s STEM cadre than Einstein.

        I’d say all the whining about philosophy is wishful thinking and they know it. Otherwise why make such a fuss about it? Like Lynas saying “the debate is over”, expressing a very fond wish. That’s what the “Alliance” said it wanted to do, “depolarize the debate”, by which they meant fraudulently to claim (to media and anyone else who might be prone to obey) that there was no debate and that the genetic engineering paradigm was proven in every way. That’s the idea behind compiling a long laundry list of so-called “scientists”, almost all of whom have no relevant credentials. It’s brute force propaganda combined with the shiny bauble buzzword “science”. I suppose that combination is enough to dazzle and subdue a lot of people, especially among professionals and the pseudo-educated. That’s why there’s been so many examples of it – the Alliance, the Nobbles for golden rice, the fraudulent Pew/AAAS survey from a few years ago. (I wrote on that one too.)

        Thanks for the good word. I try to do that. And I hope you’ll be posting some more at your site too.

        Comment by Russ — December 11, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

  2. I was stunned to learn that the Haber-Bosch process uses 1% of all oil. I never hear the climate phonies decry this glaring hypocrisy. At best they make vague references to a future GMO-based self-fertilizing batch of crops. Always in the future, always GMO.

    “Depolarizing” a debate always struck me as an obvious and self-revealing term. Maybe some things should be polarized, like whether we should be poisoning our food supply.

    Steven Druker’s book shows that since the inception of G.E. in the 70’s there’s always been a cult-like obsession with pretending all GMOs are safe, a reflexive defense of the process itself. I believe this will be revealed to be the biggest blind-spot in scientific history, although there are plenty of other examples vying for the top spot.

    I’ve been wondering about how to further my GMO project, and I’m of course all-ears. I don’t want to stay hitched to Cornell but still want to make an impact there. I’ve been helping other students get another independent course started for this next semester, it is fun to teach the truth right there on campus, the dragon’s lair. I’m inspired by the young people who get this more and more.

    Comment by Bob — December 11, 2017 @ 3:35 pm

    • That’s a dead giveaway that one’s dealing with a totalitarian ideology and/or religious cult: The utopia is always in the future, never today. Contrast agroecology, a fully demonstrated science and set of practices ready to be scaled up to any level including full global deployment, with nothing but political and economic obstacles (and the self-imposed obstacles of laziness and lack of vision on the part of many).

      I haven’t yet read Druker’s book (I have a copy and it’s on my get-to list), but I’ve read in other places how there was never a rational debate about genetic engineering, but rather how from day one in the 1970s the engineers and their fanboys responded to even the most moderate questions and criticism with insults and epithets, moving on quickly to lies.

      I often say that the scientific establishment made one of history’s monumental mistakes hitching the entire reputation and legitimacy of science itself to the cynical products of the agrochemical cartel. Although it seems they really went all in with an ideological/religious commitment well before it was clear how profitable GMOs were going to be.

      Glad to hear you’re still working with people still there in the dragon’s lair. As for your site, I don’t know anything about making videos so I don’t have many ideas there offhand. So far I’ve thought in terms of abolitionist writers getting together and dividing the labor of writing, propagating, and/or organizing for group action in MSM comment threads, social media, etc., same way the pro-GM activists do.

      Comment by Russ — December 12, 2017 @ 2:25 am

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