Nigeria chooses a shortcut to saving its textile industry but it could backfire

When Nigeria’s National Biotechnology Development Agency’s (NABDA) announced the approval of two genetically modified Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton for commercial use in the country, mixed feelings trailed the announcement that Bt cotton will improve the country’s ailing textile industry.

The economic benefits of genetically modified crops have been well documented, but little research has been undertaken on the impacts the adoption of these genetically modified crops has on livelihoods. In Nigeria, the differing views surround the idea that the new cotton varieties are being championed by foreign companies, but the bigger question should be the economic effect of the adoption of Bt cotton on farmers and farmlands.

Previously, the textile was Nigeria’s foremost industry and the second largest employer after the government and the cotton industry. Cotton used to be a major product of export responsible for 25 percent of the country’s GDP until crude was discovered. Currently, cotton accounts for only 5 percent of GDP as the country currently spends over $4 billion annually importing textiles and readymade clothing.

In a bid to revive its ailing textile industry and save farmers the trouble of contending with the local conventional varieties of cotton, Nigeria registered two Bt Cotton varieties known by their codes.

Alex Akpa, NABDA Director-General noted that “Nigeria has registered its homegrown GM Cotton saving our farmers the trouble of contending with the local conventional variety which is no longer accepted at the international market. This officially registered variety has the potential of being adopted in all the cotton growing zones of Nigeria with a maturity of 150 -160 days”.

The GM cotton is resistant to bollworm — the moth lava that attacks cotton, has a high seed yield, early maturity, tolerance to suckling insect pest, with a fibre length of 30.0 to 30.5mm, a fibre strength of 26.5 to 27.0 g/tex (tenacity) and micronaire (strength) between 3.9 to 4.1. Compared to the local conventional alternatives, the yields would be 4.1 to 4.4 tons per hectare as against the local variety yields of 600 to 900kg per hectare, Akpa added.

With advantages come disadvantages

Strains of the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis produce over 200 different Bt toxins, each harmful to different insects and as such reduce pest damage by increasing the resistance of the plant. This increases the crops yield and productivity while reducing the usage of pesticides.

However, the adoption of GMO cotton is believed to have long-term negative effects as well as limitations on farmers and the cotton. Some limitations include the high cost of Bt cotton seeds as compared to non-Bt cotton seeds and the fear that these seeds will only be effective for a period for 120 days after which the production efficiency of the Bt gene will drastically reduce.

In addition, these genetically modified organisms are ineffective against sucking pests like jassids, aphids, whitefly which weaken plants by sucking the sap from the tender new growth. Experts also believe that these pests can reduce yields by up to 60 percent.

A research by Raman Jeet Singh, I. P. S. Ahlawat and Surender Singh show that large-scale adoption of Bt cotton are mainly for immediate financial gain. Also, Bt toxins emitted by Bt crops reduce soil chemical and biological activities.

Consecutive cultivation of Bt cotton increases the accumulation of proteins in soils which might contribute to gather exogenous proteins which decreased soil microbial and enzyme activities, extra findings explained.

Although Bt cotton are not consumed by humans, Nnimmo Bassey, the Director of Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), stressed that GMOs pose serious challenges in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune dysfunction and genetic disorders.

Genetically modified cotton and the cotton water thirst

Cotton manufacturing consumes a lot of water. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), 70 percent of the earth’s fresh water is used for agriculture production. And cotton, grown largely for the apparel industry, uses 3 percent of the total amount of water consumed by agriculture.

WWF noted that it takes more than 20,000 litres (5,283 gallons) of water to produce just 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cotton, which roughly equals 1 T-shirt and a pair of jeans. Not only is this water wasted in large quantities, but the toxicity is very high.

Large amounts of water are also consumed in the process of dyeing cotton, and it causes pollution. The water that runs off the fabric and down the drain into sewage systems pours chemicals into the groundwater, as well as rivers, lakes and other water sources.

In reference to the cotton water thirst, people have argued that Bt cotton will help reduce the amount of water consumed in cotton production. However, this argument does not tackle the greater challenge of toxicity of the chemicals in the organic pesticides which experts have noted can have a higher environmental impact than conventional pesticides.

Before Ghana and other African countries begin to take cues from Nigeria, they should look to India, to see how well the Bt cotton has performed, given that Nigeria’s newly adopted Bt cotton was developed by India’s Mahyco private Limited company in collaboration with the Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria.

India is the world’s second largest cotton producer with an estimated production of 5.8 million tons of cotton between 2016 and 2017. India also has the fifth largest area under GM crop cultivation, and Bt cotton seeds account for 40 percent of the Rs 14,000 crore national seeds market.

Soil Association report reveals how genetically modified cotton grew to almost eradicate all other cotton production in India, and how the promised GM success rapidly turned to failure, with disastrous, even lethal, results for some of the world’s poorest farmers.

The report reveals how alternative, more sustainable cotton production are now successfully replacing genetically modified. In 2014, 80 percent of the cotton crop failed in the 150,000 acres of the Raichur district. Farmers incurred massive losses of over $4 million causing some to commit suicide.

The Cotton Advisory Board of India has found a threefold increase in the cost of growing cotton, due to the high price of Bt seeds, and other input costs such as fertilizers and the pesticides needed to deal with the serious pest problems.

One of the ministers responsible for introducing GM cotton to India was recently quoted as saying, “In the 1990s, I introduced GM cotton in India. Twenty years later, I regret. I am responsible for the suicide of thousands of cotton farmers.

India might be continents away, but the effects of GM cotton have no boundaries. In 2000, Burkina Faso, Africa’s top cotton grower had challenges with their cotton production as pests (bollworms) threatened the crop in mass. Then came US agro-chemical company, Monsanto’s genetically modified strain of cotton Bollgard II.

With Bollgard II, harvest doubled, cotton was pest free and then the quality of cotton began to fall because the bug-resistant genes produced more volume and less quality cotton. This forced Burkina Faso’s cotton farmers to abandon the GM varieties. Cotton farmer Paul Badoun was quoted to have said, “Genetically modified cotton is not good today and it is not good tomorrow.”