BENEDICT TEMBO, Khartoum
SUDANâ€™S image on the international scene has been tainted with armed conflicts in recent years, which led to the vast country being split into two in 2011, but it has not given cotton production to the ravages of war.
Despite the legacy of war in Sudan, which often forced people from their agricultural lands, the country is leading a collaborative effort to improve cotton production in Africa using new technologies.
After touring the country, one of Africaâ€™s success stories in cotton production, Cotton Development Trust director Lwisya Silwimba says Zambia has to invest in research on Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) cotton for the country to benefit from the technology.
Bacillus thuringiensis is the source of bacteria for the gene that confers resistance to the African bollworm, the insect that attacks cotton.
Sudan is the only Common Market for Eastern and Southern African (COMESA) member to have commercialised insect-resistant Bt cotton technology.
Therefore, the knowledge and experiences Sudan has accumulated through the process can be transferred to other COMESA member states through regional arrangements.
Cotton bollworm has been controlled by use of Bt cotton.
â€œThis has reduced the number of sprays from 12 to about two or three sprays on the crop resulting in reduction of costs of inputs and labour. The end result is increased gross margins compared to the conventional varieties,â€ Mr Silwimba says.
In Sudan, about 97 percent of farmers are now growing Bt cotton because of the positive yields.
â€œSmall-scale farmers are growing both irrigated, by use of canals, and rain-fed cotton, achieving yields of six tonnes for irrigated and 2.7 tonnes through rain-fed seed cotton, respectively,â€ Mr Silwimba says.
Drawing on his Sudan visit experience, Mr Silwimba says research on Bt cotton will help establish how best the country can benefit from the technology.
This is because insect pests are a major cotton production constraint in Zambia.
â€œCotton in Zambia is attracted by a broad spectrum of sucking, chewing and bollworm pests. Major among them are the American/African bollworm, the red bollworm, the spiny bollworm, the cotton aphid, and the jassid. Insect pest management constitutes a major part of the variable cotton production costs at about 11.3 percent,â€ Mr Silwimba says.
Therefore, Bt cotton will ensure that there is timely management of bollworms in the crop as opposed to delays experienced when farmers have to manually spray their fields.
â€œBt cotton will also reduce the risk of insecticide-related accidents such as chemical poisoning, chemical allergies and chemical spillage in the soil. Wastage of insecticides is also a major cost – environmental damage, harmful to beneficial insects,â€ Mr Silwimba says.
As a member of the delegation which recently undertook an experience-sharing visit to Bt cotton production fields in Sudan, Mr Silwimba has realised the need for Zambia to consider doing confined field trials of the technology.
He feels that cotton production could further be enhanced by establishing irrigation schemes that must benefit small-scale farmers, as they would tremendously increase the yields.
Mr Silwimba is now advocating the development of a more efficient industry through improved resource allocation, which will lower costs and free up resources for re-investment or use within the industry, such as increased tillage or improved technology and ultimately lead to better yielding seeds, equipment and machinery, education and training, among other benefits.
This will also improve competitiveness of Zambian cotton.
On the visit to Sudan, Mr Silwimba says: â€œWe were able to note the improvement of farmers through the acquisition of assets, better houses, [and being] able to send children to school from Bt cotton farming over a period of two years.â€
Mr Silwimba says because the price of seed cotton given to small-scale farmers is determined by the international market price and is mostly on the lower side, farmers can only be rewarded by way of high gross margins and higher yields, which can be achieved through Bt cotton cultivation, hence Zambia should consider doing confined field trials.
National Biosafety Authority board chairperson Paul Zambezi said cotton growing in Sudan is well organised and the government has thrown its weight behind the programme by creating a conducive environment through an efficient irrigation system and availability of seed.
â€œWe need to show leadership rather than leaving everything to arguments and politics. We do a lot of debate here in Zambia at the expense of development. Another lesson is that cotton growing is well co-ordinated between cotton growers, relevant government ministries, researchers and programme partners – the Chinese,â€ Dr Zambezi said.
For Zambia to reach where Sudan is, Dr Zambezi said there is need to amend some of the clauses in the Biosafety Act, which inhibit growing GMO crops, including Bt cotton.
â€œAt least non-edible crops can be allowed to be grown under proper regulatory regime. Along with this, we need to embark on a nationwide public awareness programme to educate the people about biotechnology and its GMO products. There is a lot of misinformation going on, not only in Zambia, but also in the whole world, including the developed world,â€ he said.
Dr Zambezi said players in the cotton industry should work together and engage Government in the production ofÂ Bt cotton.
â€œHaving said this, cotton growers in Zambia are willing to grow Bt cotton, but the law does not seem to permit them,â€ he said.
The tour provided varied lessons. Alliance for Commodity Trade in Eastern and Central Africa (ACTESA) senior biotechnology policy advisor Getachew Belay said, â€œ[Sudanese] farmers say Bt cotton is more profitable for them than conventional cotton. There was an insect called mealybug, which they thought was Bt. They learnt that even in countries where they do not grow Bt, there is this insect.â€
He said farmers have to be supported with extension services and research results.
â€œAll areas visited are irrigation areas, profitability [for Bt cotton] is better than the conventional cotton. Chinese have put up very big ginneries,â€ Dr Belay said.
He said regulators and those who test the product work together, adding that this kind of synergy is important.
ACTESA, in collaboration with the Sudan National Biosafety Council and the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Physical Construction, organised the visit to Bt cotton production fields from November 9 to 12, 2015.
The Zambian delegation comprised Cotton Board of Zambia chief executive officer Dafulin Kaonga, Mr Siwila, Dr Zambezi, Dr Belay and representatives of the cotton industry in Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.
â€œCOMESA member states are at different stages when it comes to biotechnology policy choices and capacity for research and regulatory instruments. Sudan commercialised Bt cotton in 2012,â€ ACTESA chief executive officer Argent Chuula said in a concept note for the experience-sharing visit.
Mr Chuula said Kenya, Swaziland, Uganda and Malawi are at greenhouse to confined field trial (CFT) stages that include Bt cotton, Bt maize, virus-resistant cassava and sweet potato, bacterial wilt-resistant banana and drought-tolerant, water-efficient maize.
Ethiopia has revisited its highly precautionary biosafety proclamation to start trials.
The COMESA regional policy on biotechnology and biosafety was adopted by the Council of Ministers held from February 22-24, 2014 in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
â€œOne of the key provisions in the policy is capacity building assistance to member states in both research and product testing, and the associated regulatory infrastructure.
One of the means of achieving these objectives is through actual experience-sharing visits to countries where Bt cotton has been commercialised.
Since 2011, ACTESA has been supporting participation of different stakeholders in regular Bt cotton study tours in Burkina Faso, Swaziland, Malawi and India.
Sudanâ€™s cotton success story moves Zambia
BENEDICT TEMBO, Khartoum