With a well-worn hoe dangling on his shoulder, farmer Elie Gnoumou scanned his cotton field in the south of Burkina Faso, Africa’s top grower of the fiber, with visible relief.
A month before the harvest is due to start, the 44-year-old said his hard work this season is likely to pay off. “I’ve had to do six insecticide treatments so far and there’s probably two more to go,” Gnoumou said. “But it’s looking good.”
The West African nation decided in April to halt the production of genetically modified cotton because the short fiber was hurting its reputation and cutting revenue. Thirteen years after the variety known as Bt cotton was introduced by Monsanto Co., the country’s three cotton companies and the producers’ association told farmers to sow only conventional seeds from July.
That left 350,000 cotton growers worried they’d face a drop in income. Conventional cotton is more vulnerable to parasites such as bollworms, forcing farmers to buy more pesticides and in some cases expand their acreage, according to Wilfried Yameogo, managing director of state-controlled Sofitex, the largest cotton buyer in the West African nation.
Gnoumou has grown cotton for more than 20 years on a field of about 15 hectares (37 acres) with the help of his wife. He owns a tractor, a car, and was able to put his six children through school. “With GM cotton, I knew the yield I would get,” he said. “With conventional cotton, you don’t know what will happen.”
The cotton season started with sufficient rains, leaving Burkina Faso on track to reach its target of 750,000 metric tons in the 2016-2017 season, up from 581,000 tons in the previous season, when unfavorable weather damaged crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That’s in line with an expected output increase in West Africa overall, which will probably jump 24 percent to 1.9 million tons, it said in a report last month.
Cotton is Burkina Faso’s main cash crop and the biggest source of foreign exchange after gold. Unlike its neighbors Ivory Coast and Senegal, which export a variety of crops besides cotton, Burkina Faso’s economy relies heavily on the fiber. Almost 80 percent of the active population earns an income from agriculture, according to the International Monetary Fund.
While there are eight cotton exporters in West Africa, Burkina Faso was the only country in the region to grow genetically modified seeds.
Monsanto’s plans to use Burkina Faso as a springboard for expansion into West Africa didn’t succeed as little information was given out about the program, according to Bruno Bachelier, a cotton expert at the French agricultural research institute Cirad.
“The general idea was that neighboring countries were waiting to see the results from Burkina Faso before they would decide to go ahead,” Bachelier said by phone from Montpellier, France.
Burkina Faso is currently in talks with Monsanto for compensation, saying it’s lost an estimated 48 billion CFA francs ($82 million) in revenue. The short length fiber meant that the nation’s cotton missed out on a per-kilogram (2.2-pound) bonus of 20 francs for the past three seasons. “Farmers can sell their cotton for a better price this season, which will offset the costs for extra pesticides,” Karim Traore, the president of the national cotton farmers’ union, said in an interview in the nation’s second-biggest city, Bobo-Dioulasso.
Monsanto spokeswoman Christi Dixon didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
“When you know the advantages and the ease of growing GM cotton, the return to conventional cotton is very hard,” Sofitex’s Yameogo said. “But it’s the price to pay to meet the demands of the global market.”