Biotech “True Stories” From the Frontier


The frontier of biotechnology is in a place called Bobodioulasso.

That’s the name of a town in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, a couple hundred miles from the capital of Ougadougou. Two weeks ago, the government announced in Bobodioulasso that it might allow farmers to plant genetically modified cottonseed.

That’s fantastic news for the rural farmers of Burkina Faso. For them, cotton is king–and they deserve the ability to plant the best crops biotechnology has to offer.

When I attended the BIO convention in Washington, D.C., earlier this summer, I learned firsthand how biotech cotton makes a huge difference in the lives of African farmers who use it.

Consider the case of Thandiwe Myeni, a widowed school principal in South Africa. When I talked to her, she told me that like many of her neighbors in Makhathini Flats, she is a cotton farmer. She’s been doing it for nearly a decade.

In the past, however, growing conventional varieties of cotton, she only planted 2 to 3 hectares. It just took so much time and the yields were so low. As every farmer knows, you have to maximize your resources if you hope to be successful in agriculture. Myeni wasn’t able to do this because the work was so demanding.

Then, in 1997, she started planting bt cotton, which operates on the same genetic basis as the bt corn so many American farmers grow. The results were amazing. Her yields shot up by as much as 50 percent, her pesticide applications plummeted, and she was able to plant all 10 hectares (about 25 acres) of her property. Best of all, she had time left over to spend with her family.

A study by the University of Pretoria shows that farmers planting bt cotton in Makhathini Flats have improved their net annual income by $43 per hectare.

“With my additional income, I’ve remodeled my kitchen, purchased a new tractor, and I’m able to spend more time with my four children,” says Myeni.

Today, 90 percent of the cotton farmers in Makhathini Flats use bt cotton. One of Myeni’s neighbors is T.J. Buthelezi, who also started adopting the remarkable advances in cotton technology in the late 1990s. “For the first time, I’m making money,” he says. “I’m paying my debts.”

Is it any wonder the cotton farmers of Burkina Faso would like to enjoy the same benefits? Each year, the non Bt cotton has to be sprayed EVERY week just to keep the bollworms out. With bt cotton, however, they can reduce the number of applications they must make to two or three a season, saving money, time and labor.

The debate over crop technology is bigger than Burkina Faso and Makhathini Flats, of course. At a recent summit meeting of African leaders, 40 heads of state called for a comprehensive strategy on biotechnology and GM crops. They’re planning to appoint an advisory panel to study the issue and make recommendations.

John Mugabe, one of the people behind this idea, has promised that the group will base its study and comments on “evidence, not perceptions.” That’s a worthy charge to keep, because even though some people hold the faulty perception that biotechnology is not safe, all the evidence says there is no problem at all.

It also makes economic sense for farmers. Anybody who doubts this fact should talk to Myeni and Buthelezi.

Unfortunately, activist groups continue to spread fear–there’s already a call for African countries to adopt a five-year moratorium on biotech crops. That’s exactly the wrong approach. The continent of Africa shouldn’t have to wait more years before its farmers can take advantage of what’s commonly available in the United States today.

Africa faces too many challenges and problems to be denied the wonderful tool of biotechnology. This talk of a five-year moratorium is nonsense. It will hurt the farmers who need the most help. It’s also misleading. The people who want a moratorium don’t really want a moratorium–they want a permanent ban, but they won’t come out and just say it. This talk of a “moratorium” is simply a strategic bluff to make their unreasonable demands sound moderate.

I’ll take my stand against Greenpeace and the professional complainers anyday–so long as I can stand with the farmers of Burkina Faso and Makhathini Flats.

Dean Kleckner

Dean Kleckner

Deceased (1932-2015)

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