Source - GMWatch

Civil society groups in Malawi are strongly opposing the proposed release of Monsanto’s GM cotton on scientific, legal, and socio-economic grounds.

Monsanto faces strong opposition to GM cotton from Malawi civil society
Press release, Commons for EcoJustice (Malawi).

An alliance of 19 civil society organisations and an organic vegetable farmers group led by the Commons for EcoJustice (EcoJustice) and representing Malawian small-scale farmers, faith-based organisations, organic movements, non-governmental organisations and the media, among others, have lodged a substantive submission to the Malawian authorities, vehemently opposing Monsanto’s application to obtain a general release permit for its genetically modified (GM) cotton, MON 15985, commonly known as Bollgard II.

Monsanto’s application to commercialise GM crops in Southern Africa is the first of its kind, apart from South Africa where transgenic crops have been cultivated. MON 15985 is genetically engineered to be insect resistant in that target insect pests that eat it will die.

The target pests of MON 15985 are Lepidopteran insect pests.

If successful, the commercial release permit will allow Monsanto’s GM cotton to be cultivated in the entire cotton-growing region of Malawi, including Lakeshore, Shire Valley (Chikwawa and Nsanje districts), and the central and upland zone regions, Lower Shire region and the southern region upland areas around Balaka district.

In Malawi, the bulk of cotton production is carried out by small-scale farmers farming under contract, involving around 400,000 families. The majority of cotton produced in Malawi is exported as lint/fibres, with a small proportion being exported as seed for processing for use as cotton-seed oil and other edible products. A number of public-private partnerships also exist to develop and support the cotton sector in Malawi, such as the Cotton made in Africa project involving the German government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Cotton made in Africa project specifically prohibits the use of GM cotton, which gives rise to serious concerns about the impact GM contamination may have on the workings and future of the project.

The civil society opposition to Monsanto’s application is founded upon scientific, socio-economic and administrative justice grounds. Some of the most worrying concerns include:

· Monsanto has failed to consult the public and key stakeholders adequately on the socio-economic impacts the cultivation of its GM cotton will have on local livelihoods. This is particularly pertinent in the light of experiences from Burkina Faso and South Africa, which have shown that cultivating Monsanto’s GM cotton carries a high risk of indebtedness due to the exorbitant cost of the GM cotton seed. This is especially worrying for small-scale farmers with little bargaining power in commercial cotton markets and who may not have resources for crop insurance and generally have slim risk margins. Small-scale farmers are also at risk of losing out on export markets in GM-free countries.

· Monsanto has also failed to engage the neighbouring countries of Zambia and Mozambique on existing risk management plans for possible transboundary hazards due to GMO cotton being released in the border districts.

· Private-public partnerships that do not allow the cultivation of GM cotton face the risk of contamination in a context where there is no clarity regarding liability for Monsanto and redress for small-scale farmers.

· Monsanto has not provided any empirical evidence to support its stated socio-economic benefits for small-scale farmers and the country.

· Monsanto has failed to furnish local field trial data on MON 15985, conducted at the Bunda College of Agriculture. This data remains inaccessible and out of the public domain, making it difficult, if not impossible, for the public to meaningfully engage with Monsanto’s application.

· Monsanto’s application does not consider the issue of an increase in secondary pest populations once the target pest population is reduced. Problems arising with secondary pest populations - subsequent to the use of crops expressing toxins of the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) have already been identified in several countries. Should secondary pests replace the target pests, this may necessitate increased pesticide spraying, thereby defeating the very objective of the GM technology.

· Insect resistance to Bt toxins has been documented in various parts of the world, including in Africa. Insect resistance to Bollgard I has already rendered the technology ineffective in several countries and therefore Monsanto has decided to rather request approval for its Bollgard II in Malawi. Due to mounting global problems of insect resistance to Bt crops, a comprehensive resistance management plan would seem to be essential for minimising these risks. Contrary to biosafety best practice, Monsanto has shockingly proposed submitting a long-term resistance management action plan only after resistance has already been confirmed for an affected area.

· Monsanto also states that the establishment of structured “refuges” containing non-Bt crops is not needed in Malawi until the adoption of MON 15985 exceeds 80% of the area planted to GM cotton. Monsanto makes the erroneous assumption that the remaining 20% of non-GM cotton would act as a refuge without taking into account the proximity of this 20% in relation to the 80%, nor its ability and effectiveness to act as a refuge. The same concerns arise when considering the suggested use by Monsanto of wild plants and other non-cotton hosts as refuges.

· There is also very little training envisioned by Monsanto regarding local farmers’ understanding and use of resistance management measures and refuges.

The civil society opposition also supports the long list of biosafety and socio-economic concerns published by the Cotton Development Trust in the daily newspaper, the Nation. Civil society has called on the Malawian authorities to reject Monsanto’s application in its entirety and order the decommissioning of confined field trials being conducted by Bunda until all of the concerns raised by both the civil society group and the Cotton Development Trust have been adequately addressed.

Points to note

1. The 19 organisations opposing the Monsanto GM cotton application include Commons for EcoJustice (EcoJustice), Civil Society Agricultural Network (CISANET), Farm Radio, Coordination Union for the Rehabilitation of the Environment (CURE), Self Help Africa (SHA), Churches in Action Relief and Development (CARD), Find Your Feet (FYF), Trustees of Agricultural Promotion Programme (TAPP), Farmers Forum for Trade and Social Justice (FAFOTRAJ), Network for Youth and Development (NyFD), Kusamala Institute for Agriculture and Ecology, Never Ending Food, Right to Food, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Malawi, Malawi Organic Association, Sustainable Rural Growth and Development Initiative (SRGDI), Schools and Colleges Permaculture (SCOPE), Afriseed and Women in Agribusiness in the Sub-Sahara Africa Alliance (WASAA). This objection is also strongly supported by an organic vegetable farmers group.

2. MON 15985 (trade name Bollgard II®) is a result of the retransformation of transgenic cotton line MON 531 (Bollgard I®). MON 531 was genetically engineered via Agrobacterium tumefaciens mediated transformation to express the cry1Ac gene. MON 531 was then genetically engineered again, using particle acceleration transformation, to express the cry2Ab2 gene to give rise to MON 15947. MON 15985 inherits inserts from MON 531 and MON 15947 cotton. As a result, MON 15985 expresses both the Cry1Ac and Cry2Ab2 insecticidal proteins.