Local Production: Solution to High Cost of GM Cotton Seed?

Nellie Kholowa - The only problem we have is that of aphids Nellie Kholowa - The only problem we have is that of aphids

For many years now, the government of Malawi and agronomists have been encouraging local farmers to grow genetically modified (GM) cotton seed following its notable benefits on yield and disease resistance.

While almost all of the Malawian cotton farmers have now turned to the GM seed available on the market, BollGaurd II, the worry for many is on the price as it costs several times higher compared to the conventional varieties.

This year, some farmers resorted to mixing GM and non-GM cotton seed as a way of cutting costs, a development which led to insect infestation in some fields as the efficacy of the improved variety was compromised.

To overcome the challenge, efforts are being made to produce the seed locally. But is this plausible? George Kalungwe has been finding out.

Cotton, Malawi’s third most important cash crop after tobacco and tea, is mostly grown in low-lying hot areas of the country. Its cultivation in Malawi started in the 17th century. Since then, it remains an important foreign exchange earner, contributing to about 10% of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.

Despite its strategic importance, for many years Malawi’s average yield for cotton remained between 500 kilos and 800 kilos per hectare due to wide-ranging challenges, including low prices for seed cotton but most notably pest and disease.

Cotton Bollworm is one of the most devastating, locally and world over. Without effective control, it can cause losses of up to 70%. Salimu Makiyi, a farmer from Salima, Central Malawi, knows this better.

“The last time I planted the old cotton varieties, I grew almost three acres but that year I did not harvest anything. Even a handful. And because of that, I got frustrated and I was very furious.

“I gave up cotton farming. So even after I was introduced to Bt cotton, I did not just rush into growing it because I was still reeling from the devastation that I suffered. I only started growing it after noticing that it was doing well in other people’s fields,” he says.

Dealing with the bollworm in cotton is costly and time consuming.

Explains Makiyi: “The old varieties were costly because we could apply chemicals every week. For example, a bottle of Cypermethrin would cost K2500 ($2.40) for a single application on an acre field. If you have five or six acres, it meant the same number of bottles was needed to apply just once. So, imagine if you were to apply eight or 15 times, that’s a lot of money.”

The genetically modified cotton seed commonly known as Bt cotton was developed several years ago through biotechnology, a science that involves modification of living organisms to make new products beneficial to mankind.

Bt stands for bacillus thuringiensis, a species of bacteria that lives in the soil. It produces proteins that are toxic to selected insects when eaten. The proteins are not toxic to people because the human body cannot activate them.

It is this bacterium that is infused in the hybrid cotton seed to enable it build a natural-like resistance to the bollworm.

It is now almost four years since Malawi commercialized GM cotton.

“The problem that we’ve had with cotton is the bollworms. For conventional cotton, the farmer has to spray maybe at least three or four times. But now, the modification that was done was to make this plant able to defend itself. When the bollworm feeds on the cotton, the cotton becomes toxic and it kills off these bollworms, and in doing so it means the farmer will have to stray very few times. It is less labour intensive; it is also less costly, and the farmers are also assured of much better harvest,” says Dr. Dalitso Kafumbata, a molecular biology science lecturer at the University of Malawi who also works on issues of biosafety.

Farmers growing Bt cotton attest to the benefits. Their yields have risen to about 2000kgs per hectare, and capable of reaching 4-5 thousand kilos.

Samson Chinkhadze, the District Cotton Officer for Balaka, says field demonstrations that they have been having have been very helpful.

“It is about seven years or so since we started. These demonstrations have helped the farmers to learn a lot in the sense that for the old varieties for farmers to make significant gains in terms of business the investment was high because the varieties were very much prone to pests, especially in the category of bollworms,” he recalls.

Another farmer, Nellie Kholowa from Balaka, concurs with Chinkhadze on the benefits.

“After planting, we scout the field to check if there are any weeds. If you can afford to buy herbicides, you do apply. If you can’t, you just do weeding with a hoe and do banding as well because this variety produces a lot of bolls, so if you don’t do banding, it sometimes falls down because it is heavy.

“Although this is an improved variety, it still gets attacked by some insects, especially aphids, other than the bollworm. We scout the field and if there are any aphids, we apply chemicals. That's the only problem, we see.”

The flipside

These benefits aside, there is a setback - the high cost of seed for GM cotton as currently it is entirely imported. In the 2023/2024 farming season, farmers bought GM cotton seed at K32000 ($31) per kg, yet on the market the government set a minimum price of K580 (60 cents) per kg for seed cotton.

Herbert Lukiyo, a farmer from Salima, is concerned about the pricing of GM cotton seed.

“In terms of income, the benefits are not that much because the seed is expensive. We are buying half a kilo at K16000 [$15.16], so for two acres you need K64, 000 [$62.23]. For two acres you need at least 4 kgs. We plant two seeds per station just in case one fails to germinate, and sometimes you need to buy more seed for replanting.”

Some farmers this year resorted to planting a mixture of GM and non-GM cotton seed as a cost-cutting measure but this led to insect infestation in some fields.

“We’ve received information that in some pockets within the district some farmers have used uncertified seed but the majority of the farmers accessed the quality seed through the formal agro-dealer system. The few that we have, they have seen some effects, especially at individual farm level. We don’t expect them to have high yields because the seed that they planted is of low quality,” says Chinkhadze.

In Malawi, Bollguard 2 is marketed by Quton Malawi, whose General Manager, John Lungu, admits the challenge.

In an effort to counter this, he says they are now finalizing research to start producing the seed locally which will make it cheaper.

“We do admit that the seed is expensive on the face of it, but there are so many things that go into bringing this seed into the country. However, we have decided to start multiplying the seed locally so that we should stop importing the seed from India.

“We have been training farmers for the past four years. And, we have just finished reviewing last year’s harvest; it’s impressive. Some farmers have been able to achieve 98% perfection. That’s what we want. This year we had almost 300 farmers which has given us courage that it is indeed possible to start producing the seed locally and make it cheaper.”

More Than Just Funding

However, Dr Kafumbata points out the need to do more research on the matter and ensure that there is competition among seed companies.

“Surely, that’s right… The pricing may be on the higher side for the average farmer because, like with every new technology, there tends to be associated expenses that push up the cost but also there is also little competition on the market so it is easy for seed suppliers to take advantage of that.”

He says his department is ready to help in efforts to produce the seed locally, but is quick to point out the need for government’s intervention.

“We do have capacity locally to scale up seed multiplication. Of course, to get the full realization of that, we have the people; we have the science; we have facilities to support production, so that moving forward we no longer need to rely on importing seed from elsewhere.

“However, there may still be a need for the government to provide incentives, may be in the form of tax breaks and so on for companies that actually do the production because research is one thing and actual development is quite another. And on the development side, we still need to pull up our socks in order that we can help the farmer so that they get seed that is cheap, if not cheaper, comparable to conventional cotton seed.”

The National Commission for Science and Technology is at the centre of biotechnology research in Malawi. So, what is its stand on the farmers' concerns?

“NCST is a coordinating body. Apart from the coordinating aspect, we are also there to provide support and regulate issues of research, science, technology and innovation in this country.

“In this particular case, NCST will come in as a coordinator – coordinating all the various stakeholders in this particular field so that we have a common understanding on how the prices of seed can be reduced. On our own we cannot do anything but play our coordinating role to ensure that the farmer out there is able to benefit from the science that has already been done on Bt cotton so that the price can go down and they should be able to make profit.

In Malawi, around 300, 000 farmers grow cotton on average covering over 300,000 hectares, and it directly benefits about 1 million people in a country of a population of about 18 million.

The current government policy is that all cotton grown in Malawi should be genetically modified as a way of improving yields and income.

For this policy to be effective, something urgent must be done to make the price of seed affordable for the farmer, otherwise compromises will prevail if what some farmers in some areas did this year is anything to go by.

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Last modified on Friday, 28/07/2023

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