Malawi is inching closer to commercializing Bt cotton as research into the genetically modified crop is at an advanced stage. The Department of Agricultural Research (DAR) is conducting national performance trials (NPTs) into the crop to assess its performance under farmer’s conditions and determine social-economic analysis of the impact of the technology in readiness to developing a dossier for a proposal to release the technology through the Agricultural Technology Clearing Committee (ATCC).
The initial confined field-testing was completed through trials conducted at five sites across the country. Results from these multilocational trials were consistent and showed yield and bollworm protection of Bt cotton over conventional cotton varieties. The yield advantage was double!
Bt cotton research aims at addressing the country’s low cotton yields and the exorbitant cost of bollworm sprays which contributed to poor revenue for majority of smallholder cotton farmers who operate under inadequate resource base. The government identified cotton as one crop that could potentially contribute to the improvement of farmers’ socio-economic status and boost national economic growth and development.
Conventional cotton varieties are devoid of resistance to bollworm infestation forcing farmers to spray their crops seven to eight times to control the pest. The resource-poor farmers can hardly meet such a costly and labour-demanding spraying regime. This made growing of cotton less profitable, hazardous to human health and environmentally unfriendly.
The road to Bt cotton research has been long and challenging. Confined Field Trials (CFTs) began earnestly in 2012 following the approval by Malawi’s Environmental Affairs Department (EAD). The major challenges faced at the initial stage was the short timeframe given for the construction of confinement facilities – the construction was to be complete within a month. This challenge was overcome through commitment of the research team and Monsanto, the technology supplier. There was no effort spared to ensure that all materials were procured and deployed with speed.
The second challenge was ensuring all regulatory requirements were met. Notably, this is a pioneer biotechnology in the country, thus the regulatory process was a learning curve for Malawian researchers and regulators. Constant interface between the two groups, and capacity building swiftly steered the process. The following stakeholders played a critical role in building research and regulatory capacity: African Biosafety Network of Expertise (ABNE), Monsanto, Africa Bio, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), National Commission for Science and Technology (NCST), Biotechnology-Ecology Research and Outreach Consortium (BioEROC), International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), Program for Biosafety Systems (PBS), DAR and the Cotton Council.
The third challenge was to create awareness for the Bt technology. Just like any other new technology, there is a generally lack of proper information and fear of the unknown. This is particularly so for GM technology in general and Bt cotton in particular. This was the first GM testing in Malawi and majority of the population was not aware of the technology’s potential benefits. This lack of knowledge permeated across all sectors of society including some scientists, policy makers, regulators, farmers, consumers and the public. This bred misconceptions, misinformation, misunderstandings, and distortions about the technology. This challenge was addressed through visits to various countries where the technology was being tested or already adopted through commercialization. Different stakeholders visited Burkina Faso, Uganda, South Africa, India and Brazil. The assistance of partners such as Africa-Bio, ISAAA, PBS, Alliance for Commodity Trade in East and Southern Africa (ACTESA), and Regional Approach to Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy in Eastern and Southern Africa (RABESA) was very instrumental in enhancing awareness and demystifying the Bt cotton technology.
My experiences with regulators and policy makers was quite rewarding. It was quite expected that some technology opponents would be encountered in dealing with regulators because this was the first CFT for GM technology in Malawi and some precautionary principals had to be applied. Hence there were delays in approving the CFT. However, the delay was a shared blame for us as applicants and the regulators.
I should point out the active and pivotal role that former Director of EAD the late Dr. Aloysius Kamperewera played in making bold and rational decisions that enabled us to get the necessary approvals. Once the trials commenced, minimal challenges were encountered during the testing and trial period. Most importantly, policy makers had some understanding of Agri-biotech, a factor that helped propel the process.
As the country prepares to commercialize the biotech crop, there is need for local biotech stakeholders to adopt a communication strategy that will be handy in improving relations between scientists and regulators, and providing more fora for discussing challenges to utilization of Agri-biotech. Even once commercialization is achieved, agri-biotech stakeholders should proactively conduct reviews on the regulatory framework, make changes or modifications where necessary and test more GM crops in order to build confidence on the technology, Dialogue with policy makers needs to be sustained in order to foster better understanding and appreciation of agricultural biotechnology.
The long and challenging journey looks set to bear fruits and my research team’s effort has been worth it. All indications are that ATCC will okay the release of the technology and the first ever Bt cotton seeds will hopefully be available this year! This will be a dream come true for me and undoubtedly the greatest achievement in my life.
Prof. Bokosi is the Principal Investigator in Bt Cotton Research in Malawi and Professor of Plant Breeding in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences in Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources. You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org