Monsanto, GMO Cotton, and Burkina Faso


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I haven’t written in the last week because I’ve had an out-of-town guest, Jessie Luna. She is the Fulbright doctoral student in sociology who readers may remember from my visit to Jean Ouedrago’s school. She has been in Bobo-Dioulasso for the last several weeks and came down to Ouaga for a spell of interviews with people here and some administrative preparations. Since I have a three-bedroom house, I offered her my hospitality in preference to having her stay in a hotel for a week. Her project is very interesting, and has gotten more interesting in the last couple of weeks, and has some implications for stuff I’m looking at so we had a number of long and enlightening (for me) conversations.

Her dissertation research is on the subject of GMO cotton production in Burkina Faso. About nine years ago, back in the Compaoré years, the Burkina government made a deal with Monsanto, the agricultural biotech company, to introduce genetically modified cotton seeds into the country. The genetic modification was to stop a disease that had reduced cotton yields and wiped some farmers out. Cotton is an important product in Burkina Faso, one of the country’s major exports. Cotton has been cultivated here since at least a century before European colonization, using long-staple cotton first domesticated in South America in prehistoric times and introduced to Africa and Asia during the 16th century. Long-staple cotton (sometimes called Sea Island cotton) is the preferred variety for fine fabrics and commands a significantly higher price on the world market than short-staple, or highland cotton, which, however, can withstand a lot more variation in temperature, humidity, etc. (in the US most of the cotton grown is short-staple except for a small region along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, called the Sea Islands, hence the name). Burkina is a major world producer and was an important player in a struggle over trade rules for cotton – specifically, the subsidies that the US government gives to American cotton producers – in the last round of WTO negotiations.

So anyway, there’s some disease that long-staple cotton gets that short-staple cotton is resistant to, as I understand it. So the genetic science people at Monsanto grafted a gene from the short-staple version onto the long-staple to create a variety of what they advertised as long-staple cotton that was resistant to the disease. Burkinabè cotton farmers were losing money to the disease so the government here decided to introduce the new variety. They made some concessions to Monsanto, including a law in 2007 immunizing the company against legal claims of non-marketability. A law which, incidentally, was passed through Burkina’s National Assembly and signed into law while the current president, Marc Roch Kaboré, was Prime Minister. This was before he broke with Compaoré and set up his opposition party, the MPP, which is now the ruling party. So the current leadership is connected directly to this issue.

There followed several years of test introduction of the new variety, and then over the last two crop cycles a full-scale introduction. Come to find out, last harvest, that the cotton that the new variety produces doesn’t have long enough fibers to qualify as long-staple in the marketplace. The value of Burkinabè cotton exports suddenly plummeted a good 30 or 40 percent. You’d think they would have figured this out in the test period, but apparently not. There are a lot of accusations flying around right now of corruption and/or mismanagement of the test introduction. This is hard to fix, I understand; you can’t just go back and plant the old stuff because cotton is a perennial shrub. Once you get it going, it produces for several years. The fastest they can unspool the mass introduction of the GMO cotton is a couple of years. One wonders if they saved some of the old seed. Monsanto is arguing that the new variety’s quality isn’t all that bad and their scientists are working overtime on fixing the problem and that Burkina should stay the course. The president of the national cotton company was just fired. The national cotton company is a marketing board, not a producer; most cotton is produced by very small operators, basically subsistence peasants with an extra acre or two to devote to a cash crop. With a good price for cotton, a farmer can send his kids to school, maybe own a motorbike or a cell phone, generally get ahead in the world. If cotton prices plummet, whole villages will suffer, losing their connection to the world, their chance to see their children do better than they did in life, and so on. To say nothing of the after-work stop at the maqis. And the people who produce beer, cell phones, motos, and so on are secondary victims; the economic slump that I’ve noted in the last couple of months might have something to do with this crisis. The association of cotton producers, sort of a farm bureau-like organization acting in a sense as a farmer’s union, is livid and only with difficulty convinced to restrain themselves from strikes, riots, demonstrations, and so on while awaiting government action.

The accusations are very material because there are or will be, of course, lawsuits. Monsanto argues that it should be immune to any lawsuit under the law passed at the beginning of this process. The critics argue that there was culpable negligence and/or corruption, and so therefore the law should not apply. Monsanto could almost certainly walk away from the deal and successfully defend themselves in US courts behind the shield of the 2007 law, but there are deeper implications.

African political leaders and business leaders mostly got their educations in Europe and follow European news, so they have imbibed a European attitude on many public matters. A European attitude towards GMO’s – to whit, absolutely never under any circumstances – is the default position in Africa. Burkina, revolutionary as always, was one of the first countries in the region to attempt a significant introduction of GMO crops. If Monsanto does not stand behind its product in this case, they are going to have real difficulty selling their seeds to any other African country.

In other news, it was my birthday on Friday. I’m now 56 years old, quite a bit closer to death than birth, particularly given my variety of bad habits. Nonetheless, I spent a pleasant evening listening to music and talking with friends. One friend responded to my description of Nigeria as the New York of Africa (referring to aggressive, colorful, diverse people and the fast-paced life of both places), by suggesting that Burkina Faso is the Minnesota of Africa. Peaceful, quiet, not much happens here, but everybody is just incredibly nice and welcoming. Nobody came over to my house to offer hot dish when I first got here but you wouldn’t be surprised. Everybody offers you food, if you are sitting somewhere and they are eating. And if you take some, nobody is upset. And in the little maqis around my house, everybody knows my name, like Cheers. So it was a nice birthday, thanks to everybody who wished me joy.

And it is hot as the devil. According to my phone, 41 C = 105 F as I write this. I should say that you don’t notice sweat on any part of your body exposed to the air; on the other hand my butt is pretty damp next to the chair. When I was riding my bike back from the embassy this morning, with my shoulder bag slung across my chest, there was a stripe of wet cloth under the bag strap when I arrived. You drink five or six big 1.5 litre bottles of water every day and still end up dehydrated. But, as my father always used to say, if you travel and want things to be like they were at home, you should have stayed home.

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