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Burkina Faso: Cotton farmers demand compensation from Monsanto

A group of farmers who are growing genetically modified cotton in the village of Houndé, Burkina Faso, are seeking compensation from Monsanto, the US-based company that produces and sells genetically-modified, or GM, cotton seeds. A caravan for land, water and seeds [1] is currently travelling across 15 countries in West Africa, speaking to farmers and community members and engaging national authorities on the right to food and other related issues. During the caravan’s stop in Burkina Faso on March 5, the farmers seized the opportunity to express their grievances.

Lohouan Wanhoun is an angry cotton producer who, like his fellow farmers, feels cheated by the company, and is tired of growing GM cotton at a loss. He tells anyone who will listen, “We do not want GM cotton. This is a scam that will eventually kill us all.”

In 2009, Mr. Wanhoun and the farmers in his group were, in his words, “seduced” by Monsanto’s promises of better incomes and reduced production costs. Less than 10 years later, he says, the reality is completely different. He believes that GM cotton, also called Bt cotton because it contains a bacterium called Bacillus thuringiensis which is toxic to many insects, is turning out to be a great deception.

Unfortunately for the farmers, yields have not increased with the Bt seeds. Instead, they are significantly lower. Meanwhile, costs have exploded. At first, farmers received free Bt seeds, but now the same seeds are very expensive. A 30-kilogram bag costs 26,000 FCFA [about $44 US). The same 30-kilo bag of conventional seed costs 3,000 FCFA.

Ousmane Tiendrébéogo is the general secretary of the National Union of Agropastoral Workers in Burkina Faso. He is not surprised by the increased seed costs. He says, “We warned the producers about GMOs and [said] they would lose all control over seeds. Today, they understand, but the damage is already done.”

Farmers were promised good profits, but they did not materialize. The farmers say the Bt cotton is poor quality, and brings them very little money. Mr. Wanhoun explains: “The cotton is large but does not weigh much when we sell it by weight. With the Bt cotton, my best profit was 300,000 FCFA [$503 US] three years ago. I was unable to pay the school fees for my children and my brothers.”

Producers also say Bt cotton is causing previously unknown animal diseases. Mohammed Traoré is another angry cotton producer. He says, “Our cows do not produce enough milk and have become leaner. We blame this on GMOs. We were assured that the cattle could eat the plants and GMO cotton seeds without fear.”

Faced with these difficulties, farmers are returning to conventional cotton en masse. Mr. Wanhoun made the change last year, with quick results. He says, “With the last harvest, I made 900,000 CFA [$1,510 US] with conventional cotton. I should never have abandoned conventional cotton.”

A group of current and former GM cotton farmers called the Houndé collective is seeking compensation from Monsanto. The farmers are demanding that Monsanto compensate them for the losses they have suffered while growing the crop.

The group has not made an estimate of their losses, and the amount the farmers are claiming in compensation is not fixed. For now, they are trying to mobilize more Bt cotton farmers to join their claim.