Mali's David v. Goliath GM Struggle


By Joan Baxter

Bamako, Mali

The debate on genetically modified (GM) crops has erupted again in Africa, three years after Zambia refused genetically modified food aid.

Mali - sub-Saharan Africa's largest cotton producer - has begun a controversial five-year project to introduce GM crops such as BT cotton to the country.

"We have been given some figures that show that generally BT cotton is more productive than conventional cotton because of the natural protection of this plant so there is no need for treatments," says Siaka Dembele, at Mali's agricultural research institute, IER

The institute along with the US development agency, USAid, and the transnationals Monsanto and Syngenta are leading the project which started last year.

Mr Dembele says production is not just up in the United States, but other developing countries too.


But his belief that the use of less pesticide would have both economic and environmental benefits is not shared by some.

"That's an absurd proposition," says Asseto Samake, a professor of genetics and biology at the University of Mali.

"The claims they are making for this cotton are absolutely false."

Ms Samake explains that BT cotton has been modified with the introduction of genes of the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensi so it can secrete toxins to resist two or three major cotton pests.

She says that in Mali there are thousands of cotton pests and that when a few are removed from the natural equation, others will flourish and farmers will still need pesticides.

"If BT cotton is so profitable, why do they have to subsidise their cotton farmers with billions of dollars in the United States?" Ms Samake asks.

"Our farmers in West Africa achieve record production using just their digging sticks and regular seeds and they have great difficulty selling what they produce, because subsidies in America and Europe have made the world price for cotton fall.

"So why do they come now with their GMOs and technology to solve a problem that they created? It's a big farce!" adds Ms Samake, who is a member of the Coalition to Protect Mali's Genetic Heritage that formed when word leaked from IER about the USAid-funded project on BT crops.

'Buying people'

Coalition member Mamadou Goïta says the organisation has over 100 member associations of farmers, women, academics and NGOs.

A similar regional coalition has formed for West Africa, where governments are currently developing bio-safety legislation.

But he worries about genetic pollution of and eventual disappearance of local seed varieties if GM seeds are introduced.

According to Goïta: "Mali is a kind of door they need to open to reach some European countries", where there is still widespread public opposition to GM crops.

He alleges USAid and the multinationals are encouraging Africa's researchers and government officials to accept biotechnology with lavish gifts of new computers and printers, office equipment, vehicles, and scholarships for study of biotechnology in the US.

"This is buying people," he says.

Phone calls to USAid in Mali were not returned.


Mali's Minister of Agriculture Seydou Traore dismisses suggestions of corruption.

"I know of no bribes in Mali that have anything to do with biotechnology and GMOs," says Traore.

"If there are cases of corruption elsewhere around the debate on biotechnology and GMOs, in Mali, at least for the moment, we don't know them."

In July 2005, Monsanto paid a $1.5 million fine for having bribed an Indonesian official $50,000 to try avoid an environmental impact study on its genetically engineered cotton in that country.

Mr Traore says that Mali needs to improve the quality and productivity of its cotton, and BT cotton could help do that.

To reject biotechnology, he says, is "neither tenable nor reasonable".

Debt and dependence

The debate over GMOs is not limited to the capital city, Bamako. In the mud and thatch villages of Mali's cotton belt, many farmers express concern that BT cotton would increase debt and dependence.

"Our problem is the low price and not cotton production," says 37-year-old Ladji Kone, in the community of Bohi in southern Mali.

In the village of Petaka, 800km northeast of Bamako, farmers express similar concerns.

Here, they work on a project funded by the small Canadian NGO, USC, to develop and preserve their own seed varieties in community gene and seed banks.

"I think GM crops are not a good principle for us," says project leader, Tienen Sylla. "These seeds we have here we inherited from our ancestors over generations and they fit our difficult climate. GM seeds would be a trap."

Paying for seeds

Mana Diakite, who heads USC in Mali, says that the West believes technology is the solution to development, but in areas of food security this is not true.

"Once they introduce GM crops to Africa, farmers will only access the seed if they pay," he says

"You know that when the rain fails, farmers here can seed and re-seed at least three times. And if they have to buy seeds three times a year to produce, I don't think that's a good policy for this country, or any country in West Africa."

Some coalition members admit that theirs is a "David and Goliath" struggle, which they are not likely to win.

"I think there is pressure coming from outside which they probably can't divert," says Mr Diakite.

"It's very difficult for an African government to fight something being imposed by a super giant like United States or all these seed companies."

The third West African ministerial meeting on biotechnology, supported by USAid, is set for Accra, Ghana, in June 2006.