Malawi is in her second year of cultivation of the genetically modified cotton variety BollGuard II, also commonly known as BGII. After a strenuous process to ascertain it’s scientific, economic and ethical efficacy, the local regulators approved this variety of cotton in the 2019 – 2020 growing season. It is a process that has taken well over 10 years, including back and forth formulation and review of policy, regulation and raising of public awareness on genetically modified (GM) crops.

During all this time, one major concern was high cost of a genetically modified cotton seed. And it has turned out to be a reality. “The seed is costing farmers a bit more than what they used to spend on conventional varieties”, said Cosmas Luwanda, Executive Director of the Cotton Council of Malawi, ” The GM hybrid seed is costing about K22000 [$26] per kg while the conventional ones sell at around K2000 [$2.24]. 

Compounded by Effects of Covid 19

The effects of the pandemic coupled with the high cost of seed has seen a decline in the amount of Bt cotton seed that farmers in Malawi have purchased for cultivation in the current farming season – from 31 metric tons last year to 20 metric tons this year. According to Luwanda, the effects of Covid 19 meant ginners could not purchase as much lint as possible last season, thereby putting off some farmers this year. 

Too Good to Let Go

Mr. Luwanda says, a snap survey from last year’s production has shown that farmers growing BGII cotton in Malawi have increased their yield per hectare from around 600 – 800 kilos to 1500 kilos with potential of reaching 4 metric tons. “With increased yields the farmers are making K1,000,000 [US$1,200] or more net profit compared to the conventional hybrids. That’s a competitive profit margin if you compare with other crops in Malawi. There is also cost-saving in terms of pest control since BGII is specifically designed to deal with bollworms”, he added.

Efforts to sustain the gains

The Cotton Council of Malawi has embarked on a program with the main seed supplier, Quton, to domesticate hybridization and multiplication of Bollguard II so that in the short run seed would be affordable to local farmers as it would be produced locally. The Cotton Council, is also in talks with the Malawi ministry of finance to put a duty waiver on the seed which is currently being imported from India as an interim measure to cut the cost.

The future

The Cotton Council of Malawi is also implementing a stewardship program where farmers have been trained to monitor any potential contamination between Bt cotton and other crops. The department of environmental affairs which gave an environmental pass for Bt cotton seed is also running a separate monitoring programme to enhance safety of the crop.

“So far, no case of contamination or any kind of after-effects has been reported,” says Luwanda. The head of the highest Malawi cotton authority is happy now that there is increased acceptance of genetically modified cotton in the country as farmers are beginning to embrace it. He notes, in the first year, there was notable resistance from farmers and ginners from neighboring Zambia who feared losing market since they are also involved in the multiplication of some conventional hybrid cotton seeds. Now all have realized that we need to change the way we do things if we are to improve the cotton industry in Malawi. We need to allay the fears. Currently, we are producing very little per unit area to meet our ginning capacity. The coming of BGII is an advantage to us. 

“Finally, let me assure farmers not to fear anything about genetically modified cotton varieties because now over 90% of all cotton on the global market is Bollguard II or other GM varieties so if we do not adopt this in full our cotton industry will not be competitive because we will be producing very little per unit of land.”

By George Kalungwe, a Malawian Science Journalist.