The truth from our fields

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Farmer-researchers meet with Inter Pares staff and COPAGEN leaders
Boucle du Mouhoun, Burkina Faso: Farmer-researchers meet with Inter Pares staff and COPAGEN leaders. Credit: Patricia Charest Mugwaneza

Sitting in a circle, Oumarou and twenty-five other farmers greet us as we finally arrive after a bumpy and dusty ride from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Oumarou was one of three cotton farmers who participated in an international learning exchange that Inter Pares organized in 2014 to India. While there, he met with Indian cotton farmers, and heard first-hand accounts of the many hardships and farmer suicides due to the failure of Monsanto’s genetically modified (GM) Bt cotton. He also heard of the burden of debt that the victims’ families still have to carry today.

Oumarou and the other farmers present today introduce themselves as “farmer-researchers.” Working with COPAGEN, an Inter Pares counterpart, they have received training on how to record and document crop yields, the amount of pesticides and fertilizers used, and the costs incurred in producing their cotton. This is all part of a three-year farmer-led research initiative called “Bt Cotton and Us: The Truth from our Fields.”

For the past two years, over 500 farmers from the different cotton-growing regions in Burkina Faso have documented their experience with Monsanto’s Bt cotton. This research is providing an important counterbalance, as Burkina Faso was the first country in West Africa to adopt genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and industry often lauds its success when promoting GMOs in other countries.

Oumarou explains how Bt cotton was first introduced in his area. “The cotton farmers were not consulted. We were told that Bt cotton would be good for us, and we would save money as we would have to spray less pesticides. This was true for the first year, but not after that. We now have to spray two to three times more, and the caterpillars still come.”

I ask Oumarou what motivated him to be a leader in this research. Oumarou answers, “The farmer suicides in India left many orphans. We do not want this to happen here.”

Many claims have been made by GMO proponents that they provide better yields, require less pesticides, and help to solve hunger. Through our work with farmers in the global South and here in Canada, we have heard a different story. In 2005, Inter Pares convened farmers from around the world to a policy dialogue with the Canadian government to share concerns about genetic engineering and the impact it was having on biodiversity, family farms, and peasant agriculture. Participants heard stories of contamination, intimidation, debt, and desperation. The dialogue helped to bring badly needed contextual analysis into policy-making that was too narrowly focused on technology.

It’s been twenty years since GMOs were first introduced in Canada. In an effort to shed more light on their impact, Inter Pares is working with the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network on its GMO Inquiry. Just as in Burkina Faso, this research process is providing some important information to farmers and to the broader public – information that we hope will help us move towards farming systems that are more ecological and nurturing for the Earth and for family farms.

Many claims have been made by GMO proponents that they provide better yields, require less pesticides, and help to solve hunger. We have heard a different story.

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  • Sam Nzabandora
    Dear Right Honorable Speaker, Rebecca Kadaga, In the article titled, "Pass the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill, Sekandi urges" - Posted in Newvision paper online on Nov. 24, 2015; The vice president urged the Parliament to pass the Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012, so that Uganda could also benefit from GMOs like Burkina Faso has from GMO Cotton. The speech was basically only about GMO Agriculture and eerily similar to Prof. Latigo's article posted in monitor paper online, Sept 30, 2013, From the Title to Argument Content, Prof. Latigo's article was urguably Vice President's speech temperate. Based on Prof. Latigo's assertion that "Because a transplanted gene, such as Bt-gene in cotton, will instruct production of only a particular compound responsible for the desired character, and nothing else, no other inherent risk is introduced with the gene," the Vice President presented Monsanto's GMO Cotton in Burkina Faso as exemplary Uganda must urgently follow. Unfortunately, Prof. Latigo's article is a template for Disaster. But fortunately for Uganda, the cat out of the bag: - In May 2015 the Director General of the Gourma Cotton Company (a subsidiary of the French group Geocoton) in Burkina Faso announced that the country would reduce GM cotton production across the country, over the next three years, due to “technical problems”. The final blow to GM cotton in Burkina Faso was announced the following month in the media, when the cotton industry umbrella body, Association Interprofessionnelle du Coton du Burkina (AICB), which includes notably Burkina Faso Textile Fibre Company (SOFITEX), public sector leader, Faso Coton and the Gourma Cotton Company, announced that they would withdraw from their contracts with Monsanto and phase out GM cotton altogether over the 3-year period."- However, from the Vice President to high profile official conference attendees such as Prof. Diran Makinde, the director, African Biosafety Network of Expertise at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) of the African Union who said that the bill needed to be passed to help scientist leave the current vacuum they are working from; to Arthur Makara, executive director at the Science Foundation for Livelihood and development, the organizer of the conference who thanked the vice president for the call and said the bill needed to be passed now, one would think that there was some truth to the success story of Burkina Faso's Bt Cotton! I do believe an investigation is needed into this matter to find out what led such officials especially those in high government positions, could deliberately misinform and mislead the tax payers who are footing their salaries in the light of Burkina Faso's June 2015 announcement. The country has an obligation under the Cartagena Protocol to pass legislation on bio safety that doesn't violate Precautionary Principle. When such a blatant lie that Monsanto's GMO Cotton in Burkina Faso is a success story which Uganda needs to be emulated, is told in broad day light by the Vice president of a Nation urging the law makers of the land to endorse the lie by passing the Bill into law in presence of Biotechnology Experts that were in agreement with him, then under Precautionary Principle, it is reasonable to believe that that is not the only lie being told about the Bill. An investigation needs to be done to find out why, who, which Ugandan Science expertise are behind this saga.
  • Sam Nzabandora
    Thank you for this very important information about Burkin Faso's GMO Cotton. Presently, some of our Ugandan Scientists have mislead our politicians and legislatures. Check out information following in the following link in which the Vice president is urging the lawmakers to pass Biotechnology and Biosafety Bill 2012, so that Uganda can benefit from GMO Agriculture like Burkina Faso Farmers. But what is also ironic, Prof. Diran Makinde, the director, African Biosafety Network of Expertise at the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) of the African Union, was at this conference and said that the bill needed to be passed. That is why I had to write to the speaker of the parliament and informed her that - It's time our legislatures and other leaders, especially in high offices of the land like the President and Vice President listened to Burkina Faso farmers who have had real practical experience with GMO Agriculture, instead of some of our scientists with vested interests: Thank you for informing and warning us about GMO Agriculture.