Farmers reject the much-anticipated Bt cotton.
Cotton growers in Ethiopia resort to unauthorized GMO cotton illegally smuggled from Sudan. Bt-RR cotton seed is currently being cultivated in Afar, Metema, Benishangul Gumuz and Gambella regions after being smuggled via Metema, Humera and other border areas between Sudan and Ethiopia.
Once the first generation of open-pollinated (OT) is acquired, it can be sown for between three and five years, after which the seed cannot be recycled. Ethiopian cotton farmers are currently buying the smuggled cotton seeds and multiplying them locally at 10,000 birr to 13,000 birr per quintal.
Bt-RR originated in Brazil, and was largely cultivated in Sudan. Most other GM cotton seeds are non-OT, which means they cannot be used after the first year. As a result, the farmer has to buy the seed every year.
The cotton farmers The Reporter talked to underlined that the smuggled cotton seed is preferred mainly because it resists bollworm, which has been devastating the existing local cotton breeds. This is because a one-time chemical spray on the vegetation is also highly effective in eliminating all weeds except the cotton itself.
The productivity of the Bt-RR is between 10 and 14 quintals per hectare, slightly superior to the local varieties. But the Bt-RR is advantageous mainly because it beats the bollworm, and requires less pesticide.
“A number of farmers are now multiplying the Bt-RR seed and selling it to cotton farmers across the country. The farmer liked the seed, instead of the local existing varieties and the GM cotton approved by the government,” said a manager of a large-scale cotton farming company. He cultivated the new seed on 200 hectares in Amhara regional state.
Melkamu Telake, board chair of the Ethiopian Cotton Producers, Ginners, and Exporters Association, says farmers are resorting to smuggled seed as access to other cotton seeds depletes. “The government failed to provide the type of seed preferred by the farmer.”
After the Parliament legislated the GMO proclamation in 2015, the Biosafety and Invasive Alien Species Follow-up and Control directorate at the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) and EIAR commercialized Bt cotton for the first time in 2019.
However, a number of commercial cotton farmers in Gambella have tried Bt cotton and lost interest after the first year. The first reason was that the authorized Bt cotton could not effectively resist the bollworm.
The other major reason was that the authorized Bt cotton, which is imported from India, is expensive costing USD 28 per kilo. As a result, the EIAR picked Indian-based JK Agri Genetics Ltd. to open a subsidiary company in Ethiopia and multiply the seeds in Ethiopia to avoid the forex problem required to import the seeds annually. However, this plan also bore no fruit, as the Ethiopian farmers rejected the authorized Bt cotton.
“All the cotton farmers in Ethiopia are boycotting the authorized Bt cotton. It did not effectively resist the bollworm. It necessitates the repeated application of insecticides and pesticides. We have to buy the seeds every year at an expensive price. Plus, our farmers lack the technology required to cultivate the authorized Bt cotton with the right agronomical practices. So the farmers are resorting to the smuggled variety, instead,” said Melkamu.
Mesele Mekuria, Cotton Development Director at the Ethiopian Textile Industry Development Center, also said the authorized Bt cotton did not work.
The productivity of existing cotton seeds in Ethiopia, which are Ggedera and DP90, dropped, especially after the varieties were in use for over 30 years and were unable to resist diseases. Currently, rain-based farming of traditional seeds offer anywhere between eight quintals and 28 quintals per hectare.
However, if irrigation is coupled with precise agronomical practice, the local seeds can offer between 45 quintal and 54 quintals per hectare, according to Melkamu.
“Big cotton farmers like Lucy in Afar, and other farmers in Arbaminch have achieved this level of productivity. But there are certain interest groups who are trying to enforce certain Bt cotton on Ethiopia. We need GMO cotton only after we achieve maximum productivity with the existing local varieties,” Melkamu said.
These interest groups, according to him, do not want the local varieties. “Global GMO patent holders are behind these interest groups. Once we start using such GMO varieties, we will be their slaves because the existing local varieties will be ousted in five years and we have to buy their seed every year.”
Yet, other cotton farmers argue that the EIAR has to take samples of the Bt-RR that are smuggled from Sudan, study them, and approve them for Ethiopian farmers.
The meager productivity of local cotton farming has been the Achilles heel for Ethiopia’s aspirations to become the manufacturing hub of Africa, mainly capitalizing on textiles, garments, and apparel.