Burkina Faso in French-speaking West Africa has become the latest country to commercialize biotech Bt cotton with plantings of 37,000 acres in 2008 for seed production that could result in 400,000 acres of Bt cotton planted in 2009. Developments in Burkina Faso show the complex socio-economic issues that influence countries to adopt biotech crops.

Burkina Faso is among the least developed countries in the world with per capita GDP of $1,300 per year and has a national economic need to adopt new cotton production technology. About 90 percent of the population is involved in subsistence agriculture with cotton being the principal cash crop accounting for over half of the total value of exports for the country. Agriculture accounts for 90 percent of the labor force, but only 30 percent of the nation’s GDP. Increasing productivity in cotton will directly translate into a boost in GDP.

Drought problems and insect pressures cause output to vary substantially; production was 1.3 million bales in 2006-07, but fell to 0.68 million bales in 2007-08. Preliminary estimates by USDA put production for 2008-09 at 0.95 million bales. Over the last four years, exports have ranged from 0.775 million bales per year to 1.4 million bales. Yield per acre is relatively low at 327 pounds per acres compared to 877 pounds in the U.S., and 696 pounds for the world average.

Bt cotton will improve incomes for growers. Researchers at Burkina Faso’s National Agricultural Research Institute (INERA) have been experimenting with biotech cotton since 2003. Their research shows that biotech cotton requires only two pesticide applications per year compared to six to eight for non-biotech cotton. Pesticide use is cut by at least 60 percent. Pesticides account for about 30 percent of the cost of growing cotton, and lower use will result in savings of $35 per acre. The INERA trials show per acre yields 30 percent higher because of better control of insect pests.

The Bt gene used in cotton was developed by Monsanto, but the scientific work to evaluate performance and choose the two approved varieties was done by local scientists under authority of Burkina Faso’s National Biosecurity Agency. This is consistent with discussions earlier this summer at the G-8 leadership summit that supported the use of biotech crops, but encouraged the involvement of local scientists to develop understanding of the use of the technology. Royalties from Bt cotton seed sales will be split with 28 percent to Monsanto and 72 percent to local farmers.

According to USDA estimates farmers in Burkina Faso planted about 1.2 million acres of cotton this year, up from 1.0 million acres in 2007, but down from 1.7 million acres in 2006. If 400,000 acres of Bt cotton are planted in 2009, it would be one-third of the total cotton acreage. That would be a rapid adoption rate, but similar to experiences in other countries where large numbers of limited resource farmers quickly adopted the technology. Bt cotton has been grown in China for 10 years and 65 percent of the cotton acres are Bt. India has been growing Bt cotton since 2002 and also has about 65 percent Bt cotton. Biotech crops are scale neutral because all farmers plant seeds and many use pesticides and there is no need to change basic production practices. Seed costs are higher, but lower pesticide costs more than offset the higher seeds costs and increased yields add to incomes.

The decision by the government of Burkina Faso to approve biotech cotton also has trade policy implications. It is a leader of the cotton four countries (Burkina Faso, Benin, Chad and Mali) that sought substantial changes in U.S. cotton policies in the Doha Round of WTO trade policy negotiations. With those talks stalled, it is even more important for countries in Africa to adopt domestic policies that increase yields and reduce production costs. While the adoption of Bt cotton in Burkina Faso will not suddenly push its yields close to China or the U.S., achieving the 30 percent yield increase reported in the research trials would make it more competitive in international markets.

Accepting Bt cotton is not the end of the biotechnology story for cotton in Burkina Faso and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. As noted earlier, drought and insects are the two biggest challenges for cotton producers. Virtually all biotech companies are working on drought resistance that involves a multitude of genes. While the technology appears to be several years away from commercial use, it could be particularly relevant in Burkina Faso where droughts are common. By accepting Bt cotton the country has prepared its farmers to use new technology as it is developed. They cannot afford to be ten years behind in adopting drought tolerant crops.

The production of Bt cotton in Burkina Faso also has implications for other biotech crops in the country. Limited resource farmers in South Africa and the Philippines already produce Bt corn. Egypt has recently introduced Bt corn, and China is reportedly ready to release biotech rice that has been on hold for several years. India has field trials on a dozen different crops ranging from eggplant to potatoes and tomatoes. The Gates Foundation has a project on biotech cassava to meet the needs of limited resource farmers in Africa. Burkina Faso has many potential partners to choose from to produce biotech food crops to increase food supplies and incomes for farmers.

Biotech crops are not a silver bullet to solve all the food, feed, fiber and fuel production challenges of Burkina Faso, or any other country. The technology has been proven in developed and developing countries and is scale neutral. To fully utilize the technology the government needs to address other input needs and have an efficient cotton marketing system.