EXTRACT: A citizens' jury held recently in Mali allowed public debate on whether to adopt GM cotton. It brought together 45 women and men farmers from different villages in the Sikasso region to interrogate 14 experts on the pros and cons of Bt cotton. The verdict from the farmers' jury was unanimously in favour of banning GM cotton.
Creaming off the crop
The Guardian, December 6 2006
Cotton growing in West Africa is booming, but land is running out, poisonings are on the up and the GM companies are moving in
[Camilla Toulmin is director of the International Institute for Environment and Development. This is an edited extract of the 2006 Rachel Carson Memorial Lecture she gave yesterday at the Royal Society.]
Cotton is a crop that encapsulates so much of what is good and bad about the way we live on Earth. The first evidence of cotton growing comes from the Indus Valley, as early as 2500BC. Today, cotton is farmed around the world, with global production around 25m tonnes a year. India and China are best known as the main sources of growth, but the largest increase has come in West Africa, producing more than 1m tonnes a year.
Cotton brings many economic and environmental impacts. While widely perceived as a "natural" commodity, it is one of the crops most reliant on chemicals.
Using 2.5% of the global land area, cotton requires 22.5% of the world's insecticides and 8%-10% of the world's chemical fertilisers. Globally, the World Health Organisation estimates 3m instances of pesticide poisoning and 20,000 deaths each year, mainly among poor farmers in developing countries. Cotton farmers, exposed to high levels of pesticides, are particularly at risk.
Cotton also highlights the unfair trade relations we have set up and refuse to reform. The subsidies paid to cotton farmers in the EU and the US provide them with a price two to three times higher than the world markets. As a consequence, inefficient farmers in Europe and North America go on producing cotton, which must then be sold off on the world market at a loss, bringing prices down for everyone.
In West Africa, cotton is mainly grown in Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. It is reckoned that 2 million farming households are producing cotton in West Africa - which, taking a cautious estimate for household size of 10-15 people, makes for a total population of 30 million people relying in part on cotton.
But farmers face many problems. Cotton prices are low, yields have been static and in some cases are declining. Good land is becoming scarce in the main growing areas and soil fertility is being exhausted. Diminishing fallow land cuts back the area for grazing cattle, reducing the quantity of dung for maintaining soil quality.
Meanwhile, cotton pests have become resistant to insecticides, leading to a shift back to more powerful, and more expensive, organochlorines. Reintroduction has led to a rise in poisonings and deaths in Benin, and evidence of increased problems in Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Farmers rarely have appropriate protective clothing, and empty containers are frequently reused to carry water. Accidental exposure is only too common. State-run extension services to bolster the cotton industry have been cut back, and, in some cases, their role has been taken over by pesticide companies that provide extension advice and supply their products directly to farmers.
Access to land is also becoming increasingly tight, as pressure of population growth and expansion of fields, thanks to the use of ploughs, have led to fallow disappearing in some areas. Land close to cities is in great demand for residential and commercial development, commanding high, and rising, prices.
Cotton farmers need rain, but rainfall in the region is uncertain and no one knows what changes global warming will bring. This last season of 2006 has been remarkably good, with heavy rains throughout the West African savannah and Sahel, making up for a late start to the farming season. But farmers remember the terrible droughts of the 70s and 80s.
Few people listen to what the farmers have to say about their plans for the future. Much of the debate on the future of African agriculture tends to take place among government officials, representatives of agri-business, donor agencies and "experts". It has been difficult for farmer groups to get their voices heard and their priorities taken into account. Fortunately, Mali has several farmer unions that are increasingly vocal. Their force was demonstrated during the cotton strike of 2000-01, and the government knows that some form of consultation will be essential if it is to get approval for new initiatives, including growing GM cotton.
Several companies are now seeking to establish themselves in this market. Monsanto has successfully gained a foothold in Burkina Faso where the first exports of bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton are due next year, and there is talk that Mali will also decide in favour of GM cotton, following the visit of high ranking officials to Switzerland. The USAID missions in West Africa are keen to see countries adopt "new technologies" and are training national scientists in biotechnology skills.
Growing GM cotton sells itself on the grounds that less insecticide is needed than with conventional varieties, but there are concerns surrounding longer-term pest resistance and the commercial monopoly exercised by a few agri-businesses giants over GM seed and input supply.
A citizens' jury held recently in Mali allowed public debate on whether to adopt GM cotton. It brought together 45 women and men farmers from different villages in the Sikasso region to interrogate 14 experts on the pros and cons of Bt cotton. The verdict from the farmers' jury was unanimously in favour of banning GM cotton. It remains to be seen how far the government will take such voices into account - but a decision on this politically hot issue is unlikely until after the 2007 presidential elections.
Considering the problems of price, yield and poisonings in growing cotton, organic production would seem to be the obvious solution. Projects show that it is possible to cut out dependence on toxic chemicals, while sustainable cotton production, using integrated pest management methods, demonstrates how to substantially reduce levels of pesticide use.
But expansion of organic cotton also faces challenges. Organic pest management would need to be complemented by improvements in soil quality and substantial additions of organic matter, from green manures, composting and cattle dung. These consume land and place a limit on where organic cotton can be grown.
There are currently four initiatives under way in West Africa, aimed at more sustainable cotton farming and developing new markets for cotton. These focus on the farming system, since there is very little processing of the crop into thread and cloth within the region. There has been a certain amount of competition between these different initiatives but there are now moves to bring them together.
Consumers can speed these enterprises: look out for organic and sustainable cotton products (at http://wearorganic.org ); support non-governmental organisations that are working closely with farmer associations in West Africa to help shift to more sustainable systems; and tell the major retailers not to niche market the ethical and organic goods. Retailers can drive a major improvement in prices and production systems, but they need to hear that this is what you want.