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African Cotton Farmers Reject GE Crops

Information and awareness raising workshop on GMOs and the rights of local
communities in Burkina Faso

Ouagadougou, 13-16 April 2004

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso
17 April 2004

>From 13 to 16 April 2004, a workshop was organised in Ouagadougou by
INADES-Formation, Agroecology Consultation Framework (CCAE) and the
National Federation of Peasant Organisations (FENOP), with support from
ACORD-Sahel and GRAIN, on the problem of genetically modified organisms
(GMOs) and community rights in Burkina Faso. The meeting brought together
some 40 participants from NGOs and farmers' organisations. Just before the
workshop, a round table was organised at the National Assembly in order to
update parliamentarians on what is at stake.

This workshop aimed to inform and raise awareness about the issues
surrounding GMOs -- organisms created in laboratories. To help meet this
aim, a number of experts including Dr Robert Ali Brac de la Perrière
(BEDE/Inf'OGM, France), Dr Jeanne Zoundjihékpon (GRAIN, Bénin), Soumayila
Bance (Minister for the Environment and Quality of Life, Burkina),
Bougnounou Ouétain (retired researcher), Jérémie Ouedraogo (INERA,
Burkina), Devlin Kuyek (GRAIN, Canada), Anne Chetaille (GRET, France),
Christophe Noisette (Inf'OGM, France) and Souleyman Coulibaly (IPM/FAO,
Mali) provided background on the following points:

- GMOs: their definition, advantages and risks
- the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Cartagena Protocol
- what's at stake for agriculture in Burkina Faso and throughout Africa
- the African Union Model Law on biosafety
- GMO field trials

The debates and discussions inspired by these talks were very rewarding.
The participants really understood the issues around GMOs and especially
raised a lot of questions about field trials of GMOs in Burkina Faso.

Burkina Faso bears the stigma of being the first West African country to
have officially authorised, as of 2003, field trials of transgenic cotton
belonging to Monsanto (Bt cotton) and Syngenta (VIP cotton). These
experiments could spread to other countries in the region, and are
therefore pioneers. The workshop participants are worried because these GM
crops were released into the field without anyone being informed of the
implications of transgenic plants and without Burkina having the necessary
biosafety legislation in place. GMOs are extremely controversial worldwide,
and questions about their safety and risks, both for the environment and
for human health, are far from answered.

These field trials do not mean that Burkina Faso has authorised the
commercial planting of GM crops by farmers. That decision has not yet been

At the moment, directives to set up a national legislative framework on
biosafety have been developed and are being processed by the government.
The participants of the workshop hope that civil society will actively
participate in the discussion and adoption of this legislative framework.

Other legal instruments which caught the attention of the participants are
the ratification by Burkina Faso of the Convention on Biological Diversity
in 1993 and the Biosafety Protocol in 2003. These two international
treaties aim, on the one hand, to protect biological resources and, on the
other hand, to set up safeguards against environmental and health risks
from GMOs. Both of them limit the scope for privatising and commercialising
genetic resources, serving as counterweights to other treaties, such as
those of the World Trade Organisation and the World Intellectual Property
Organisation (WIPO). For example in Africa, we have the Bangui Agreement,
revised in 1999 with help from WIPO, which sets up a common system of
intellectual property rights over plant varieties in 16 countries. It was
ratified by Burkina Faso in June 2001. The Bangui Agreement does not
protect the rights of farmers and local communities -- it facilitates the
privatisation of life. So how do we manage these contradictions between the
precautionary principle and a 'free market' principle? The workshop
wrestled with these questions -- and the answers need to be found.

In relation to the Bt cotton field tests, the participants expressed their
fears concerning both the socio-economic and environmental impacts.

Regarding the socio-economic impacts, the Bt cotton variety being field
tested is from the US and the Bt gene that it carries is patented.
Consequently, even if this gene was transferred into a local burkinabè
variety, farmers would not be able to grow it without paying royalties to
the company holding the patent. The unfortunate experience of Percy
Schmeiser, a Canadian canola farmer whose fields and varieties were
contaminated by transgenic pollen from neighbouring farms, illustrates the
worries in Burkina Faso. In Schmeiser's case, instead of being compensated
for contamination, he was taken to court by the company holding the patent
and sentenced to pay the intellectual property rights to Monsanto. The
patents, which establish a legal straightjacket, are being used as weapons
to subjugate farmers to agro-chemical companies.

Regarding the issue of yield, a film produced in India shows that farmers
who grew Monsanto's 'Bollgard' Bt cotton in 2002 were let down:
conventional varieties produced more and larger heads. Not only that, the
conventional varieties gave a better fibre quality which fetched a better
market price. Yet the Indian farmers were completely confused, because the
price of the transgenic seeds was so much higher. GRAIN indicated that the
GM cotton variety being field tested in Burkina costs more than 50,000 CFA
(US$90) per hectare, while cotton farmers in West Africa presently spend on
average 37,000 CFA (US$67) for pesticides and the conventional cotton seeds
are free. It is therefore evident that Bt cotton will not reduce poverty.

Even if this cotton did lead to lower pesticide use, and putting aside all
other risks, doubts about the technology remain. The fact that it is US
cotton that is being tested in Burkina doesn't achieve any real transfer of
the transgenic technology, which is complex and expensive.

As for the environmental risks, one recurring concern expressed by the
participants is the possibility that transgenic cotton contaminates related
plants, of which there are many in the region. If local or wild varieties
acquire the modified genes, they could become unmanageable and invasive
'super weeds'. Another risk of contamination is the likely end of organic
agriculture, an approach to farming which categorically refuses GMOs.
Finally, since insects and wind do not know boundaries, genetic pollution
and seed exchange can cross national borders and spill into neighbouring
countries, hence the urgent need to get a common biosafety framework in
place. The AU Model Law on Biosafety can help in the harmonisation of
national legislation. Participants actively encouraged their governments to
adopt the Model Law.

The workshop participants also stressed that the growing of Bt crops, which
produce their own insecticide, does not mean that farmers stop using
insecticides. Bt cotton has self-defences against certain pests, but not all.

Is there an alternative to both pesticides and genetic engineering?

The participants learned about different agricultural methods, such as
integrated pest management, which allow farmers to deal with pests in an
ecological way. Among other solutions, it was proposed to give more value
to the gene pool and agricultural heritage of West Africa. African fauna
and flora is extremely rich. If public research would lend a hand, local
biodiversity could fight malnutrition and assure food security. But this
heritage is now being privatised by Western companies, as in the case of
the yellow yam (Dioscorea dumetorum) which has been patented by the company
Shaman Pharmaceuticals. Their patent (US 5019580) applies to the use of
dioscoretine for the treatment of diabetics. How can we protect our
collective rights to this heritage? How can we secure appropriate sharing
of benefits, linked to its use?

In the end, the workshop came up with an action plan. The participants
committed themselves to: inform a wide public using different methods (e.g.
radio programmes, written articles, educational materials, etc.); take
action to influence official bodies; contribute to the development of a
national and regional network for the sharing of experiences and
information; and help promote alternative technologies.

Finally, a group was created to work with Social Alerte Burkina which has
already been engaged in raising awareness.

At the political level, the participants called on Burkina Faso to
immediately vote for a moratorium on the use and commercialisation of GMOs,
so that time can be devoted to informing the public and assessing all the
risks related to GMOs.

-- The Participants