THIRD WORLD NETWORK BIOSAFETY INFORMATION SERVICE
Dear Friends and Colleagues
Bt Cotton Being Field-Trialled in Swaziland Despite Poor Performance in Africa
Cotton is a lucrative cash crop on the African continent; an essential income source for small farmers in 28 African countries, and contributing about 5% to global production. In recent years, cotton production in the continent has been declining. There has been a concerted push for the adoption of genetically modified (GM) cotton, particularly Bt cotton, in Africa by industry. Only South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan have grown Bt cotton. Burkina Faso, however, began to phase out Bt cotton in 2015 due to loss of quality characteristics. In South Africa, the collapse of the credit system led to a decline in cotton production, leaving small farmers destitute.
Cotton is a major source of income for approximately 2500–3000 small farmers in Swaziland, particularly in drought prone areas. In November 2016, the Swaziland Environment Authority approved open field trials of Bt cotton (also known as JK Event 1 cotton), owned by JK Agri Genetics, an India-based seed company. This Bt cotton makes use of a GM technology previously patented by Monsanto, which targets pests like the African bollworm. The specific event has come off patent and has been discontinued in South Africa, owing to widespread pest infestation.
Trials commenced on 28 November 2016 for three GM hybrid cotton varieties deriving from JK Event 1 and imported from India, called JKCH1947 Bt, JKCH 1050 Bt and JKC 724, alongside the local non-GM variety, ALBA OM 301. Meanwhile, revisions are being made to Swaziland’s National Biosafety Act (2012), which are likely to expedite the commercial cultivation of GM crops. The proposed amendments are awaiting approval at parliamentary level.
Civil society, however, has called upon the Swazi Government to shift cotton production away from GM technology towards sustainable practices and pest management strategies that are effective, ecologically-sound, and reduce risk to smallholders. It cites agroecology, including organic cotton cultivation, which has proven to be an effective solution to poverty alleviation for smallholder farmers in West Africa, as a viable and necessary option.
With best wishes,
Third World Network
131 Jalan Macalister
Websites: http://www.twn.my/and http://www.biosafety-info.net/
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GM COTTON PUSH IN SWAZILAND: NEXT TARGET FOR FAILED BT COTTON
African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB)
18 July 2017
1. The push for genetically modified (GM) cotton is evident across the African continent. Bt cotton is a first entry transgenic crop, with the greatest likelihood of commercial approval – as has been the case in South Africa, Burkina Faso and Sudan.
2. Cotton is a major source of income for smallholder farmers in Swaziland, particularly in drought prone areas. Cotton is grown in all four regions of Swaziland, but primarily in the Lubombo and Shiselweni regions. There are approximately 2500–3000 small-scale farmers involved in cotton production across the country. Cotton producers are organised under the Cotton Growers Association.
3. In Swaziland, the cotton sector is vertically integrated and state controlled, which is an attractive environment for large multinational seed companies to enter, as was the case in Burkina Faso. The Swaziland Cotton Board provides a secured market for cotton producers, internationally supported research and development, and production and marketing of the cotton sector, and administers a credit scheme which finances seed, chemicals for cotton management, tractor hire and other activities related to the cotton sector. In this context, large multinational companies are provided a monopoly on cottonseed production. For example, Mahyco (Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Co.; partly owned by Monsanto) has acquired the cottonseed company, Quton from Seed Co (previously Africa’s largest cottonseed company).
4. Bt cotton is being offered as a saviour to declining cotton production, particularly with changes in market access following Swaziland being suspended from African Growth Opportunity Act (AGOA), and because of the potential of developing an integrated cotton-textile-clothing value chain in Swaziland.
5. In November 2016, The Swaziland Environment Authority approved open field trials of Bt cotton – also known as JK Event 1 cotton, owned by JK Agri Genetics, an India-based seed company. This Bt cotton makes use of a throwaway and outdated GM technology previously patented by Monsanto, the cry1Ac gene encoding for a Bt insecticidal toxin that targets pests from the Lepidoptera order of insects, like the African bollworm. The trait has come off patent and has been discontinued in South Africa, owing to widespread pest infestation.
6. JK Agri Genetics Ltd, which is linked to Mahyco Monsanto (India) Company, entered into a non-exclusive, nontransferable sub-licensing agreement with Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (India) Ltd in 2009. Previous field trials were conducted in 2014, and were halted due to the lack of an import permit being forthcoming for the import of GM cottonseed. The current Bt cotton trials commenced on 28 November 2016, for three GM hybrid cotton varieties deriving from JK Event 1 and imported from India, called JKCH1947 Bt, JKCH 1050 Bt and JKC 724, alongside the local non-GM variety, ALBA OM 301.
7. Revisions are being made to Swaziland’s National Biosafety Act (2012) to expedite the commercial cultivation of GM crops. The proposed amendments are awaiting approval at parliamentary level.
8. The push for GM cotton in Swaziland is a well-coordinated strategy, including public relations work and biosafety capacity building. This is illustrated by the tour to India by an African delegation, including Swaziland, in November 2016. The tour highlighted the benefits of Bt cotton in India and biosafety capacity building provided by the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) with funds provided by USAID.
9. Although Swaziland is a Party to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CPB), which, under Article 21 (6) (c) requires that the government provide the public with access to a summary of risk assessment, no such summary was made publicly available. This rendered any comprehensive independent risk assessment of the field trial application documents impossible. Nevertheless, with the little information that was provided, we found that the data available on the characterisation of JK Event 1 is too inadequate to ensure safety of the introduced trait, thus falling short of Swaziland’s Biosafety Act requirements. Further, information on the known risks of Bt toxins to human health and the environment that was provided in the application was outdated and excluded independent data exposing such risks.
10. Bt cotton only protects the crop against the infestation of certain pests, and does not address the multiple priority risks for farmers, especially agro-climatic variability. Due to the persistent drought, there was a sharp decline in the number of farmers engaged in cotton farming during the 2014/15 growing season (from the usual 3 000 to 1 997 farmers). This illustrates the need for more holistic measures to reduce risk and vulnerability.
11. With the introduction of more costly inputs associated with GM technology, farmers endure greater risk, betting on higher yields to recover higher debt. Therefore, agricultural climatic variability will also have an effect on cotton production, whether Bt or conventional. Low yields and higher-than-normal debts can have widespread implications for livelihood and food security. The ultimate beneficiaries are those who are able to take financial risks, such as wealthier farmers, who often have other forms of income.
12. In light of the potentially severe, adverse effects of the introduction of Bt cotton, especially for small-scale farmers (who are the initial targets of these technologies), the Swaziland government is urged to take a more cautious approach. Burkina Faso phased out Bt cotton in 2015, due to loss of quality characteristics that affected farmers, the country’s market and profits of cotton companies, while receiving no compensation from Monsanto. In Ghana, the field trials involving GM cotton have also been abandoned. South Africa’s Bt cotton farmers experienced crippling debt, which led to the plummeting of cotton production and closure of the Makhatini gin in 2007. It is vital that the Swaziland government learn from these experiences on the continent, before making any decisions regarding further field trials and revisions of its Biosafety Act to allow for GM based agriculture systems. The Swaziland government should seriously consider investing in research on alternative pest management strategies, which have shown to be effective.