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Africa Plants More GMO Cotton Despite Sector’s Sustainability Trends: Report

Africa’s cotton-growing sector is under fire for using genetically modified seed, even as the global industry moves toward sustainable and organic standards.

A new white paper, “Cotton in Africa: Sustainability at a Crossroads,” from Textile Exchange’s Pan-Africa Sourcing Working Group, concludes that an increasing number of countries in Africa are choosing to adopt genetically modified (GM) cotton, even as global demand for organic and preferred cotton is growing.

The white paper said Africa appears to be of two minds–seven out of its 54 countries permit GM cotton production, defined as cotton that has had its genetic material, or DNA, altered in a manner that does not occur naturally, while four have opted out. Many other countries are in the consideration phase.

The report notes that the global sustainable textile cotton industry increasingly demands organic and GM-free preferred cotton due to environmental and economic ramifications of GM cotton. In response, the Working Group urges policymakers in Africa to support preferred cotton production standards that prohibit genetic modification such as organic, Fairtrade and Cotton made in Africa.

The white paper outlines the risks of scaling GM cotton in Africa and the opportunities of organic and GM-free preferred cotton standards. The continent was slow to take up GM cotton, with South Africa being the first country to permit its use in 1997, followed by Burkina Faso–which has since suspended its approval–in 2008 and Eswatini and Sudan in 2012, the report stated.

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However, in 2018, another four countries–Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and Malawi–approved the use of GM cotton and Eswatini started growing the crop. So far this year, Kenya commercially planted GM cotton for the first time, while Algeria, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Madagascar prohibited or have opted out of genetic modification in general, and GM cotton specifically.

“With relatively little penetration of GM cotton, African countries have an opportunity to learn from other countries’ experiences of GM technology and weigh the pros and cons,” said Liesl Truscott, director of European and materials strategy at Textile Exchange and coordinator of the Working Group.

“Demand for organic and other non-GM cotton continues to increase and, keeping in mind the genetic biodiversity and resilience that local seed varieties can offer, we hope this report creates food for thought for decisionmakers at all levels,” she added. “In the journey toward regenerative organic fiber production, it is vital for countries to allow for GM-free cotton initiatives based on organic practices and the precautionary principle to flourish.”

Prama Bhardwaj, CEO of Mantis World and chair of the Pan-Africa Sourcing Working Group, urged African cotton producers to “choose to grow organic cotton which can be integrated into the growing African sustainable textile supply chain or used by manufacturers in Europe and the Middle East” that are striving to meet United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for responsible production.

According to Textile Exchange’s 2019 Organic Cotton Market Report, global production of organic cotton saw impressive growth between 2016-17 and 2017-18, increasing 56 percent to 180,971 metric tons. Africa accounted for approximately 4 percent of global organic cotton production in 2017-18, experiencing a 20 percent increase over 2016-17.

“Africa is at a crossroads,” Textile Exchange managing director La Rhea Pepper said. “It is key for governments, farmers and other stakeholders to recognize the importance of protecting the right of farmers to grow non-GM crops. Organic agriculture is a proven system for sequestering carbon, building soil health and biodiversity, and increasing food security. Introducing GM agriculture requires the implementation of stringent biosafety regulations, as well as investment in non-GM seed and training to ensure coexistence with organic agriculture.”

Textile Exchange’s Pan-Africa Cotton Sourcing Working Group will continue to track policy addressing genetic modification in Africa and advocate for organic and non-GM preferred cotton production standards. Textile Exchange said it views regenerative organic cotton production systems operating under fair-trade principles as the gold standard.