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Africa's Biggest Cotton Producer Struggles for Consensus on GM Technology

Africa's biggest cotton producer, Mali, is struggling to renovate its labor-intensive cotton sector and keep growers out of poverty.

The sound of picking cotton in Mali does not equate with easy money.

World prices have had several dips in recent years. Cotton growers get as little as 160 West African CFA francs per kilogram of cotton - about 30 cents.

In the southern town of Kita, some growers, weighing their cotton, are getting a little more, thanks to a small scale fair-trade initiative, whereby a few foreign buyers guarantee a higher price.

This is to offset huge subsidies that European and American cotton producers receive. Following complaints from countries like Mali, the World Trade Organization agreed to phase these out by 2013.

Until then, government officials and scientists are pushing for experimentation with genetically-modified seeds. But, for some Malians, this option would make matters worse, not better.

The alter-globalization movement as it calls itself is led here by former Culture Minister Aminata Traore.

She says Africans have been burned (been taken advantage of) over and over. She says she is proud resistance is beginning against what she views as the new evil -multinationals like American-based Monsanto, allegedly pushing to create new dependencies with genetically modified seeds.

Another activist in the anti-"genetically modified" camp is French aid worker Franck Merceron, who says there are more pressing problems which need to be addressed, such as improving financial practices or dealing with possible privatization of the cotton sector.

He says the technology might work on large-scale farms in the United States, Australia or Brazil, but he does not believe it would be beneficial in the context of Mali's mostly small farms.

Merceron is working on developing chemical-free biological cotton for a Swiss group called Helvetas, but, so far, few growers are interested.

Producing cotton requires lots of spraying, and using bio-pesticides, although beneficial to the environment, reduces productivity.

The idea behind genetically-modified seeds is to reduce the need for pesticides and improving productivity.

A coordinator for Mali's Institute of Rural Economy, Siaka Dembele, says that, at the very least, research on genetically modified technology, commonly referred to as GM, should be allowed.

He says the cotton industry is entering a crucial transition, with nearly a third of the world's cotton already genetically modified. He says GM experimentation is already being conducted in neighboring Burkina Faso and that Mali should soon follow, or else he warns it will be left behind.

Dembele accuses those against the new technology of being what he calls ideologues - basing themselves on unreliable information and propping up activists at the community level.

He also does not agree with their argument that cotton growers will become dependent of multinationals. He says special seeds will initially be bought, but afterwards, he believes these could be adapted to local conditions and appropriated.

Another target of the anti-GM group has been the United States Agency for International Development.

The U.S. government agency faces repeated accusations of buying off scientists and government employees, like Dembele, with trips and training abroad to make them amenable to GM prospects.

American officials deny this, saying their role is to provide information.

They were not available to be recorded for this report, but said the agency is working with Malians on studying possible improvements to the cotton sector and agriculture, including, but not exclusively, genetically modified seeds.

Companies like Monsanto say they are looking for new markets but that, in Africa, they also reduce their profit margins to help fight poverty.

These arguments ring hollow for the anti-GM group. They would like a revival of the cotton sector to come from within their own borders.

They say another shame is that Malians produce few clothes, locally, like at this traditional factory, depending instead on used clothes sent by aid groups and resold in Africa.

Experts agree cotton and everything that revolves around it is a passionate issue in Mali, one of the world's poorest countries, despite having more than 600,000 hectares cultivating what was once known as "white gold."

Several laws are being formulated in several government ministries that would allow a legal framework for GM research, but experts agree it is very doubtful the government would seek to pass anything now, for fear of a popular backlash before presidential elections scheduled for next year.