Growing cotton in Burkina Faso has been associated with use of insecticides to control insect pests, particularly the African bollworm and related species. This method had been successful until the mid-1990s when insect resistance to insecticides became a serious issue for farmers. This was temporarily circumvented by increasing the number of sprays to above six per cropping time. Very quickly, even the use of more pesticides (up to 18 sprays) became unsuccessful in pest control while economically unbearable. In some instances, farmers made use of the banned and highly hazardous insecticide Endosulfan.

In a bid to attain sustainable production of cotton in the country, scientists at the Institute of Environment and Agricultural Research (INERA) were urged to find an adequate solution. At that time, research was already ongoing on the possible use of insect-infecting viruses to control the bollworm and related pests. Unfortunately, no satisfactory results were obtained. It is in this context that introduction of genetically modified (GM) cotton was approved after agreement with technology providers. The genetically improved cotton is engineered to express two insecticidal protein genes obtained from a soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), therefore, the term “Bt cotton” as it is popularly known in Burkina Faso. After 5 years of sufficient tests, Bt cotton was commercialized in 2008, gaining popularity among Burkinabé farmers and elevating the country to Africa’s number one cotton producer. By 2015, which was the eighth year for farmers in Burkina Faso to benefit significantly from Bt cotton, adoption was at 71.3%, representing 450,000 hectares planted to Bt cotton against 631,000 hectares planted to cotton in the country.

Adoption of Bt cotton came with numerous socio-economic benefits to farmers, a constant supply of raw materials to cotton processors and increase in revenues from the textile and apparel industry. I have had the chance to visit farmers in their fields, to get a feel of the difference in cultivating Bt cotton vis-à-vis the conventional varieties. For them, cultivating Bt cotton meant less contact with pesticides as spraying was reduced to 2 times per cropping time compared to 6 – 15 times required with conventional cotton. “We have had many eye problems because very few farmers have protective clothing to protect themselves from harmful effects of pesticides,” narrates Mr. Biénimi Kaboué. The farmers also enjoyed a significantly reduced amount of labour in fetching water to dilute pesticides and covering long distances carrying a 20kg spray pumps on their backs. “With conventional cotton, I had to do 10 pesticide sprays that greatly increased my workload. I would cover more than 15 kilometers just to fetch water and spray a one-hectare field with a heavy load on my back,” recounts Mr. Bambio Dambo who owns a 13-hectare piece of land. “With reduced pesticide spraying, Bt cotton saved not only my Francs but also my health,” he adds.

Regrettably, in 2016, all the substantial agronomic, environmental, economic, health and social benefits to Burkinabé farmers growing Bt cotton came to a halt. The Interprofessional Cotton Association of Burkina (AICB) and cotton companies at the production and processing forefront decided to revert to conventional cotton production. The reason for suspending Bt cotton farming was cited as short fiber length that fetched low prices, with cotton companies claiming losses. Surprisingly, farmers were not really involved in this decision and the fiber length issue was alien to them. What followed was a resumption of increased production cost, increased labour and shrinking profit margins. Consequently, in 2017, the country saw a significant reduction in area under cotton cultivation and overall production. In 2018, many farmers have shifted attention to cultivation of alternative crops. For instance, farmers from N’Dorola have abandoned cotton cultivation in favour of cereal crops. This trend is expected to replicate in other major cotton-growing areas unless a solution is reached in making cotton production sustainable and profitable again.

It doesn’t take a socio-economist to tell that suspension of Bt cotton is having debilitating effects on all cotton stakeholders in Burkina Faso. Farmers have to re-learn how to grow conventional cotton by following insecticide treatment recommendations while the youth are fleeing the farm in search of gold at a time when the country is experiencing a mining boom. This vibrant population sees no incentive in cotton production whose return on investment has dropped and farming laden with constant exposure to chemicals. Suspension of Bt cotton cultivation is also having negative implications on agri-biotechnology research in other African countries. For instance, Bt cotton experimental trials in Ghana were immediately stopped following Burkina’s fall out. In addition, those against the technology have been using Burkina Faso’s case to spread misinformation. Amidst all this, I am personally enthralled by Nigeria’s recent approval of Bt cotton cultivation. The giant of Africa has made an important decision for its farmers and its cotton industry. I can only hope that the relevant authorities will expedite the process of returning Bt cotton to Burkinabé farmers. After all, we must all understand that no one can really stop scientific and technological advances. Where I come from, we say the earth does not lie and I am sure the case of Burkina’s Bt cotton will serve as a valuable lesson for Africa and beyond!

Dr. Edgar Traore is the Coordinator of Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology – Burkina Faso Chapter