SADC must embrace Bt cotton
Cotton farming is a source of livelihood to the majority of farmers mostly subsistence in drier parts of Southern Africa and even beyond.
In Zimbabwe alone, over 250 000 families directly depend on cotton as a source of livelihood. With production of the crop hanging in the balance due to low producer prices and low yields per hectare, cotton growers still need to survive through the crop.
The 2014 report, released by Index Mundi (IM), a global commodity brokerage portal, ranked mostly Asian, European and American countries as top cotton producing nations.
According to IM, India with an output of 13 956 696 metric tonnes of lint (processed cotton) is the largest producer followed by China, the United States, Pakistan and Brazil.
Burkina Faso, one of the first African countries to allow production of genetically modified cotton also known as Bacillus thuriengensis (Bt) is the continent’s top producer and is sitting on number 10 on the world rankings with an output of 585 280 metric tonnes last year.
Bt cotton is a genetically modified variety which doesn’t have the actual bacterium Bacillus thuriengensis in it.
It has the gene for producing the Bt toxin that the bacterium produces, genetically engineered in it (that is, carefully inserted into its DNA). This toxin prevents insects in the larvae stage from successfully digesting food, thus starving the insect making it resistant to pests.
Tanzania is number one in Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and number 21 globally with production of 266 400 metric tonnes of lint followed by Zimbabwe positioned number two in SADC and 27 in the world.
According to the report, Zimbabwe produced 112 554 metric tonnes of lint last year. Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo follow in that order.
With this background agricultural experts believe that embracing Bt cotton is one of the solutions to poor quality and low yield currently being experienced by most regional cotton farmers yielding about 500 kilograms per hectare out of a possible 4, 5 metric tonnes per same area.
Agronomist Evert Kurewa contend that, the fact that those countries which are known for cultivating Bt cotton elsewhere are doing exceptionally well must act as an incentive for regional countries to adopt the technology.
“The current low production is mainly due to high production costs most cotton growers and contractors are failing to meet resulting in poor yields year in year out. This means that the farmer will get a few dollars after marketing the crop,” Kurewa said.
“Because of high production cost most farmers’ crop is graded D, with no price differentials.
This is a big disincentive to the cotton grower. Bt cotton costs less to produce but often results in high yields; it matures faster than the conventional cotton which is an advantage to farmers.”
Bt cotton, Kurewa added, is known to alleviate pest attacks leading to increased yields and delivering higher profits to farmers. This variety can substantially reduce the number of pesticide sprayings which can provide significant environmental benefits as well.
Kurewa said the adoption of Bt cotton which is an increasingly important tool for farmers around the world can benefit large and small scale farmers through increased productivity, convenience, and reduced maturity time. Adoption of this technology will lead to positive implication for the farmers, their surrounding communities and the future of agriculture in general.
“If SADC is to compete with other regions, there is need to up yield by member states that grow the crop,” she said.
In the region, only Malawi now has a policy to grow Bt cotton. South Africa has done some trials but it is still to roll out the scientific method of producing the white gold.
Commenting on the same issue Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU) executive director Paul Zakariya said Burkina Faso which embraced the modern method of growing the crop is now the largest producer on the continent.
“In Zimbabwe, we developed the seed for Bt cotton, but for some funny reasons it ended there, nothing much was done. Indeed Bt cotton is part of the answer to challenges we are currently facing in cotton production and marketing,” Zakariya said.
“We also need to look into other factors as well, because Bt cotton alone may not change the fortunes of our farmers.”
According to the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC), cotton growers in the SADC region are set to endure low producer prices during the 2015 marketing season due to huge stockpiles of the crop from last season currently being held by countries such as China and India.
Global cotton hectarage is also expected to plummet six percent next season due to persistently lower prices on the global market.
As most SADC nations heavily rely on the international markets, the current low world prices will be certainly felt in the region.
Last season cotton growers in the region were being paid an average price of about US$0,50 per kilogram which they said was half of what they expected to recover production costs.
Agricultural consultant Peter Gambara concurred that Bt cotton will go a long way but quickly noted that there is also need for farmers and merchants to adhere to best agronomic practices in the production of the crop.
“Poor agricultural practices are also resulting in low yields per hectare. Inefficiency in the marketing system is also playing a big role.
“One would think that Bt alone will increase our yield but it still requires good management for it to produce expected yields. So the real issue is on improving our efficiency,” he said.
Gambara said there was need to make use of regional markets through creating demand in the downstream industries.
“Value addition is not an option but a must for member states,” he said.
Value addition of the crop is still behind in most regional countries since the bulk, if not all of the crop is still being exported raw to countries such as China and India.
Contracting firms, who finance about 99 percent of cotton production in some of the regional countries such as Zimbabwe, he said, also need to give adequate support to cotton growers.
“Farmers and contractors need to play their part in good faith. Inputs must come timeously in recommended quantities and farmers need to apply them as expected and then yields will surge,” Gambara said.
Other countries which grow the crop in the region are Mozambique, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Madagascar and Mauritius.