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Cotton Farmers Stand Up, Monsanto Backs Down

October 2017

This March, the Burkina Faso National Farmers’ Union and the Inter-professional Cotton Association of Burkina (AICB) won $76 million in an out-of-court settlement  with Monsanto for income lost on the company’s Bt Cotton seeds.

Federation Nationale des Organisations Paysannes (FENOP/National Federation of Farmer’s Organizations) is one of the anchor organizations of We are the Solution, one of our partners. FENOP has been involved in significant grassroots organizing to ban Bt Cotton in Burkina Faso through networks, events, and studies.

The general coordinator of FENOP in Burkina Faso, Issouf Sanou, comments on the ban. “Banning BT cotton is positive for agro-ecology, but it is not enough. However, the state must direct its policies towards agro-ecology. This reduces the use of chemical inputs and environmental pollution, but GMO cotton is replaced mainly by conventional cotton with other chemical inputs.

Burkina Faso is the leading producer of high-quality cotton in West Africa. Cotton textile manufacturing accounts for some 60 percent of Burkinabe exports. However, the genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton seeds Monsanto sold to the country threatened that position. An unexpected repercussion of the genetic modification shortened the Bt strain’s fiber length, a key benchmark for cotton quality.

Not only did Bt cotton disappoint manufacturers, but farmers were let down as well. More expensive seeds and the use of more sprays ultimately cut into farmers’ income.  Down to Earth (DTE) spoke to Kadidja Koné of Cote d’Ivoire, who led the recent visit to Pastapur in Medak district in India to create a documentary on the impact of Bt cotton, found “Bt cotton seeds 30 times more costlier than conventional seeds, the declining resistance to insect attacks was forcing farmers to use more and more sprays.” Farmers wound up feeding the corporate agribusiness giant instead of their families.

As profit margins shrank and the market price for the lower quality cotton dwindled, farmers realized the switch from conventional cotton seeds was a dangerous mistake.

Yet upon returning to conventional seeds, DTE reports that farmers are set to reap a record harvest without GM seeds’ high input costs.

Monsanto originally  touted the decreased use of sprays and increased yields for farmers, but these claims crumbled once put to the test by farmers themselves.

However, Burkinabe farmers did not just learn from their own experiences but also from other farmers. Through farmer-to-farmer education, Burkinabe farmers also saw the devastation Bt cotton brought to farmers in India. A majority of India’s cotton is grown by small farmers that depend on rain-fed irrigation. The high costs of Bt cotton seeds and insecticide coupled with the inability to save seeds increased the risk of bankruptcy for these farmers. A report showed that annual suicide rates of farmers in rain-fed areas drastically increased as they adopted use of Bt cotton. Widows of farmer suicides shared how decreased yield and increased spraying requirements devastated their families. Allowing such small farmers to take on the risk of a corporation’s new product is unethical and cruel.

DTE writes that  researcher Didier Zongo from the National Agency for the Evaluation of Research Results claimed Monsanto did not practice due diligence in testing the GM seed before selling it in Burkina Faso. After creating a new GM strain in a lab, researchers breed it with non-GM parent crops to make sure the new qualities are stable. This is known as backcrossing. According to Zongo, new varieties should normally be backcrossed around seven times, but Bt cotton was backcrossed only twice.

The Burkina Faso government, in partnership with Monsanto researchers, conducted the first field tests of GM crops in West Africa.  The failure of the Bt cotton seeds and the inaccuracy of the field tests raise important questions about who holds authority in science. In whose interests is the science conducted? Are corporations conducting research for farmers or for themselves? And can they do both?

The research and educational work of groups like Inter Pares, Deccan Development Society, and Coalition for the Protection of African Genetic Heritage remain important in the struggle, but Burkinabe textile manufacturers dictate the cotton market. Given Reuters’s focus on the cotton association AICB, it appears industry’s influence may have been the driver behind this settlement. Although collaboration often brings more power for farmers, will they be left to fight on their own if Monsanto produces a long-fiber Bt seed that meets manufacturers’ quality standards?

Research that is funded and conducted by a private company is not held to the same accountability as purely public research. Instead of corporately funded field studies and lab tests, agroecology, the study of the interactions of different systems and their effect on agriculture, is a science by farmers for farmers. Farmers in West Africa and other parts of the world need protection from these incomplete field studies. The results of shoddy corporate research could devastate their lives .

Small farmers make up the majority of the Burkinabe population and their knowledge is rich. PV Satheesh, Director of Deacon Development Society, celebrates that this win proves “that we don’t always need scientists to give us the data. Farmer-led research is as important because they have vast reservoirs of knowledge.”

Rather than corporations telling the government what farmers need, farmers can develop their own solutions to their own problems, if they are adequately supported.

This victory against corporate control of cottonseed in Burkina Faso is an important step forward, but there is much organizing and education still to be done. Sanou cautions that “if research on GM cotton has been suspended, Monsanto is continuing its research in Burkina Faso on cowpea and GM maize.” Grassroots will continue to empower its partners, such as We are the Solution, to provide resources in this ongoing campaign for local seed control in Burkina Faso.

About the Author: Allison Kaika began her internship with Grassroots in September 2017, after spending the summer in DC with the National Family Farm Coalition. She is currently an undergraduate at Boston College majoring in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Food Systems. Upon graduation, Allison hopes to participate in building a more equitable and just food system for all people.

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