Columnists Features

Malawi testing GMO cotton

MALAWIAN agriculture scientists Doctor Gondwe (right) and Jessie Mvula in the cotton field where genetically modified cotton is being tested. PICTURE: PHILIP KAMBAFWILE

THEY say seeing is believing and believing is knowing. So, when journalists from southern Africa undertook a field trip to Malawi’s Chitala research station in Salima district, east of the capital Lilongwe, some local farmers took advantage to learn about the advantages of genetically modified cotton.

Henox Jere, 40, of Khote village who has been growing cotton for 12 years, and Jennifer Banda, 51, a lead farmer under Kapunzila, listened attentively as Doctor Gondwe, a researcher, and Jessie Mvula, a plant breeder, explained the benefits of genetically modified cotton.
At the end of the field trip, both Mr Jere and Ms Banda were satisfied with what they saw at Chitala, one of the nine sites where Malawi is fielding testing cotton which has been genetically engineered with the bacillus thuringiensis, the source of the gene that confers resistance to African bollworm, the insect that attacks cotton.
With the bollworm eliminated, farmers cut down the cost of spraying the crop as the frequency is reduced considerably.
It culminates into increased harvest per hectare as bacillus thuringiensis cotton produces more balls than the local variety.
Bacillus thuringiensis is the source for the gene that confers resistance to the insect that attacks African bollworm.
Scientists have cultivated African bollworm-prone local varieties side by side with GMO cotton.
Mr Jere and Mr Banda said growing local varieties has been less profitable because it is labour -intensive as it requires to be sprayed frequently as well as buying a lot of chemicals to contain the notorious African ball worm.
Ms Banda, a farmer for 10 years, said she came to prove that genetically engineered cotton is high yielding.
Mr Gondwe said although there are other pests that attack cotton such as the red ball worm, pink ball worm, and spiney ball worm, they are easier to take care of.
The field trials being carried out in all the country’s three regions – northern, central and southern – follow successful confined trials by the University of Lilongwe in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture and Research Services.
The two institutions carried out confined trials for genetically modified cotton (BollguardII) from 2012 and this resulted in de-regulation of the bacillus thuringiensis (BT).
Buoyed by the results of the BT experiments, the Department of Agriculture has escalated the experiments into field trials by testing nine varieties across the nine sites countrywide from the 2016/2017 season.
Ms Mvula said during the three years, field trials will be conducted in the nine sites, scientists will be collecting data, analysing it and submitting it to the agriculture clearing committee in preparation for general release.
Ms Mvula is happy to be involved with the field trials, saying it is a good experience.
She said of all the genetically modified crops Malawi is testing, cotton is far ahead.
Malawi is also conducting BT experiments with cowpeas and bananas.
She said growing BT cotton as witnessed so far is the way to go because the oil and lint are safe.
Ms Mvula said the local variety is not only expensive to grow because of intensive labour, but also harmful to the environment and human health because of too many sprays.
“BT cotton is good because of less use of pesticides and thus environmentally friendly,” she said.
She praised Government through the Ministry of Environmental Affairs by allowing the trials to go ahead at a time when there is heated debate about GMOs.
Agriculture is the mainstay of the Malawian economy with cotton being the priority crop.
Other crops include rice and maize.
Getachew Belay, the senior biotechnology policy advisor the for African Commodity Trade in Eastern and Southern Africa (ACTESA), was impressed with the number of varieties Malawi is producing because it will give the country options to choose from, based on the performance in the ecological zones.
Dr Belay said the Malawian design is also perfect for trials and urged other African countries intending to start trials to go and learn from there.
ACTESA is a specialised agency of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa and spearheads the implementation of the COMESA biotechnology and biosafety programme in partnership with other regional, continental and international level service providers.
The COMESA Treaty (Chapter 18, Articles 129-137) stipulates full cooperation in agricultural development, science and technology domains, including the harmonisation of agricultural policies in order to increase production and attain regional food security.
However, most African countries are still in preparatory stages to adopt biotechnologies.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA, AfriCentre), besides Malawi, Kenya (maize and cotton) and Nigeria (cotton) have transitioned from conducting experimental research or confined field trials to granting approvals for environmental release.
ISAAA says this could lead to commercial planting in the next one or two years after varietal and national performance trials are completed.
ISAAA says supportive policies are essential to make this happen.
Burkina Faso (cowpeas), Ethiopia (cotton), Ghana (cowpeas), Nigeria (cowpea and sorghum), Swaziland (cotton) and Uganda (banana) are the six countries which conducted multi-location trials in preparation for general release approvals.
Tanzania and Mozambique recorded first-time approvals and new crop traits. Tanzania planted its first-ever confined field trial – drought tolerant maize under the WEMA (Water Efficient Maize for Africa) project while Mozambique granted its first approval for a confined trial of a stacked trait – insect-resistance and drought-tolerant maize, also under WEMA.
In its 2016 Global Status Report on Biotech crops launched in Malawi last Wednesday, ISAAA said in Kenya, a GM banana trial resistant to banana bacterial –Xanthomonas wilt (BXW) disease was planted.
Two trials, one on ‘bunchy-top’ virus resistant banana and another for insect (Maruca) resistant BT cowpea were initiated in Malawi.
Nigeria granted approval for a stacked trait-insect resistant and herbicide tolerant maize for the first time in the country.
The report says after the second decade of commercialisation of biotech/genetically modified crops in 2016, a total of 18 million farmers in 26 countries grew 185.1 million hectares of biotech crops – an increase of 5.4 million hectares or 3 percent from 179.7 hectares in 2015.
The report further says except for the 2015 adoption, this is the 20th series of increases every single year; and notably 12 of the 20 years were double-digit growth rates.
For Africa, 2016 was the 19th year of commercialisation of biotech crops.


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