Bt cotton can generate $40m a year in revenue for Zim

Sifelani Tsiko
If the growing of genetically modified cotton is allowed in Zimbabwe it could be a boon for the State. Experts say the cotton can generate nearly $40 million in incremental revenue every year through improved crop yields and reduced cost of production.

Quton managing director Edworks Mhandu told participants recently at a workshop addressing cultural and religious issues surrounding GMOs that Zimbabwe stood to benefit significantly by adopting modern technologies rather than totally banning them.

“Zimbabwean farmers need superior technology to compete with other cotton growers around the world,” he said.

“Improving farm productivity is key to reviving Zimbabwe’s cotton sector. Cotton farmers around the world have adopted biotechnology to make production more efficient.”

Mhandu said the estimated incremental figure of $40 million a year was calculated after a study on incomes and production costs for 72 smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe and 42 in South Africa in the 2013–2014 cropping season was done.

In the period under study, a Zimbabwean non–GM cotton grower on averaged sprayed his crop eight times, got 819 kg per hectare, fetched 56 cents a kg, realised an income of US$459 per hectare while the cost of production was pegged at US$359 per hectare.

Net income for the Zimbabwean farmers was US$100 per hectare.

Across the Limpopo, a South African farmer growing GM cotton sprayed his crop twice, got 1 012kg a hectare, fetched 56 cents a kg, realised an income of US$567 per hectare while his cost of production was US$306 per hectare.

Net income for the South African farmer was US$261 per hectare.

“The actual increase in productivity in other countries is much higher than in Zimbabwe and South Africa,” the Quton managing director said.

“In India, Bt cotton achieved 83 percent increase in productivity from 300kg of lint/ha to 550kg of lint/ha.”

He said South Africa could realise US$52 million every year in terms of economic benefits from GM cotton and increase yields by 193kg per hectare while Zimbabwe could realise US$40 million a year in incremental benefits.

Mhandu said chemical saving for bollworm control could reach US$12 million as farmers reduce the number of sprays and cut on labour costs.

“The economic benefit can be much higher depending on the increase in the yield,” he said. “Less chemicals are deposited into the environment including water bodies. There is also reduced contact with hazardous chemicals for farmers.”

Biotechnology experts say genetically modified cotton is developed using bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), which naturally produces a chemical harmful only to a small fraction of insects such as the bollworm.

The Bt toxin is inserted into cotton, causing cotton called Bt cotton, to produce this natural insecticide in its tissues.

Experts say Bt cotton can help reduce heavy reliance on pesticides and reduce input costs for farmers.

Proponents of biotechnology argue that cotton farmers in Zimbabwe, Malawi and most other African countries, can effectively reduce input costs and control damage from bollworms and other insects that frequently damage cotton by adopting Bt cotton.

They say cotton farmers in Africa suffer huge losses due to pest problems. The most destructive of pests is the African bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera), which biotech experts say in severe cases can cause a 100 percent loss while in unprotected fields pest damage can be as high as 90 percent.

Using Bt cotton developed using bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, which naturally produces a chemical harmful only to a small fraction of insects such as the bollworm, they say reduction in pest infestations can increase yields and improve the livelihoods of cotton growers.

Cotton production in Zimbabwe has declined sharply over the years due to uncompetitive prices, high input costs for farmers and other constraints.

Reduced crop support for Zimbabwe non-GM cotton growers and high dependency on global lint prices has also led to a sharp decline in production in the country.

Zimbabwe consumes two percent of production and exports lint to Europe and Asia.

World leading cotton producing countries such as India, China, USA, Australia, Brazil, SA and Burkina Faso have adopted Bt cotton.

More than 70 percent of cotton traded globally is GM cotton.

“Zimbabwe was the first country in Africa to conduct confined field trials for GM cotton and maize around 2000. We started off well on this path before this was completely stopped around 2005,” said Ella Nyakunu, a South Africa-based manager of the African Centre for Gene Technologies (ACGT) and GMASSURE project helping to articulate biosafety and biotechnology issues around agriculture in Southern Africa.

“We have lost out on the potential benefits of new agricultural technologies that can significantly boost yields, incomes and improve livelihoods.”

University of Zimbabwe biochemist, Prof Idah Sithole-Niang said farmers, religious and cultural leaders, policymakers as well as the public lack accurate knowledge generally on agricultural biotechnology and GMOs specifically.

“Negative and inaccurate information is preventing the adoption of new agricultural that could significantly transform the livelihoods of the majority of cotton growers in Zimbabwe. We have challenges that are not being addressed by everyday challenges,” she said.

“By 2040 about 9 billion people will need to be fed and tell me how we going to feed them in the wake of climate change, dwindling water and land resources? Our global food basket is very narrow now and 80 percent of the world’s caloric intake now depends on four crops including maize, wheat and potatoes.”

She bemoaned the loss of skilled biotechnology experts and graduates to other countries seeking job opportunities.

“As a scientist, I feel arrested. We producing biotechnology graduates for other countries to snap them while here at home we are doing nothing to utilise their skills to improve agricultural production. Malawi and South Africa have planted Bt cotton and there are using our talents,” Prof Sithole-Niang said.

Prof Christopher Chetsanga, a UZ biochemist and chairman of the Zimbabwe Council of Higher Education (Zimche) said there was need to influence those involved in the adoption of the technology to remove barriers for biotechnological solutions that can address agricultural sustainability issues in the country.

“The debate seems to be uninformed or misinformed and there is a false claim that eating GMOs is a risk to human health,” he said.

“There is no evidence or conclusive proof that GMOs are harmful to human beings.

“In some regions its use has brought about economic growth which has helped to improve incomes and food security.”

Prof Chetsanga said risks involved were not always due to the techniques used, but rather to their improper or excessive application.

Said Dr Zephaniah Dhlamini, of the Applied Genetic Testing Centre at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST): “GM technologies should be judged on a case by case and there is no conclusive proof they are harmful to human health and the environment.”

“Most of the concerns raised by those who are against science and technology are factually incorrect.”

Cotton production in Zimbabwe has declined sharply over the years due to uncompetitive prices, high input costs for farmers and other constraints.

Output fell from 283 000 tonnes in 2012 to less than 200 000 tonnes by 2013 before it plunged to less that 200 000 tonnes in the three years that followed.

At its peak, Zimbabwe produced more than 353 000 tonnes, earning the country over US$200 million.

Cotton creates employment for some 200 000 people.

In 2014, a record 181,5 million hectares of biotech crops were grown globally, an increase of more than six million hectares from 2013, according to a report released by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA) last year.

Having cultivated 2,7 million hectares in 2014, South Africa ranks as the leading developing country to grow biotech crops in Africa.

Sudan increased Bt cotton hectarage by approximately 50 percent in 2014 and several African countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Uganda conducted field trials on several pro-poor crops including the food crops rice, maize, wheat, sorghum, bananas, cassava and sweet potato.

“As a country we need to do confined field trials to assess the performance of GM crops and assess the claims of high yields and potential risks,” Mhandu said.

 

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