Volatility

December 9, 2017

Lessons of the Burkina Faso Bt Cotton Debacle

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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.”