Under a blazing sun, Thiao Bonkoho picks precious cotton bolls with his bare hands. His family and hired labourers help. His field is over 12 hectares, the work is tedious, and the harvest poor, yielding less than one tonne per hectare. Visibly disappointed, he says: “I will get little more than 11 tonnes. This is not a good season for me.”
Mr. Bonkoho lives in Bouéré, a village 280 kilometres west of the capital city of Ougadougou. The economy of this area has revolved around cotton for decades. Whole families are involved in the production of “white gold.” This year, local farmers planted over 300 hectares of cotton. But, like Mr. Bonkoho, many are disappointed at harvest time.
Tiny Boni is one of them. For the fourth time in eight years he will not make a profit. He switched to genetically modified, or GM, cotton in 2009, hoping for higher yields and profits.
During the mid-2000s, cotton farmers in Burkina Faso were desperate. The selling price was steadily declining, the rains were irregular and profits virtually non-existent. The government, along with bio-tech companies Monsanto and Syngenta, promoted the benefits of new GM cotton varieties. Mr. Boni remembers: “The GM cotton was presented as resistant to pests and drought. These reasons convinced us.” Mr. Bonkoho says, “Many farmers were heavily indebted after harvest. Conventional cotton was no longer a solution for us.”
But four years later, GM cotton farmers are still waiting for the rewards. Some say production costs have increased significantly, contrary to what was advertised.
Mr. Bonkoho says: “The main advantage of GMOs is the reduction in our workload. I can grow cereals with the time saved. But the expense? It is a different story … The GM cotton costs more to grow. I spend on average 125,000 Francs ($250 US) per hectare.” He spent only 90,000 Francs ($180 US) per hectare for conventional cotton.
The farmer is also disappointed that GM cotton is not as heavy as conventional cotton. GM cotton bolls have a smaller seed than conventional varieties, so they weigh less. The heavier the bolls, the more the farmer is paid at the weighing station.
Bamba Adama is the technical officer at SOFITEX, a state-controlled agro-industrial and commercial agency involved in the entire cotton production cycle. He dismisses the farmers’ claims, arguing that they are not growing GM cotton properly. He argues: “Producers are not playing fair. They use fertilizer to produce grain. But GM cotton requires an equally rigorous application of technical standards.”
Many farmers continue to grow conventional cotton. Mahamady Dabo lives in Samandéni, 160 kilometres west of Bouère. He has grown cotton for twenty years and makes a profit of more than one million francs ($ 2,625 US) every year. He says his secret is simple: “For good cotton harvests, it must be produced on large areas. This minimizes the cost of production.” Mr. Dabo plants an average of 20 hectares.
But the farmers who have switched to GM cotton see it as their future. Tiny Boni says he will not abandon GM cotton, and blames last season’s poor harvest on erratic rainfall. Thiao Bonkoho agrees, and says: “I do not regret switching to GM. If I had sown conventional seeds, last year’s pest attacks would have cost me everything. It is thanks to GM cotton that I have a harvest at all.”