Genetic cotton: Are we there yet?

Figure 1cotton in Africa. Image source: Reuters

Cotton in Kenya was a huge source of revenue before its slow death two decades ago. Companies were established as early as 1958 such as Thika Cloth Mills so as to produce textiles. Cotton was exported and clothes made from the same sold locally. However, as decades passed by what is left of cotton is the pale shadows of its existent. As early as the 1980s, cotton production had ceased without a chance of redemption. Most farmers lost interest in the crop due to a number of reasons. Pests such as bollworm made it hard to grow cotton.

Figure 2cotton bollworm. Image source: pixabay.com

Bollworm caterpillar is a crop pest present in almost all African countries. The worm causes a toll on agricultural crops in the farms. Its ability to become resistant to the pesticides used is what has led to a loss in most of the agricultural areas. Cotton has not been left out. It is as a result of bollworm infestation that the crop yield reduced as farmers spent a lot in managing it yet the output was low making a majority incur losses.

Market channels were insufficient to support the surplus supply of cotton. A lot of farmers, therefore, incurred losses as their cotton was bought at throwaway prices. This made some farmers venture into more reliable crops such as maize farming for the sake of their livelihoods.

A majority also depended on rainfall to foresee the growth of their cotton. Cotton does well in tropical and sub-tropical areas. Too much morning rain can render the plant sterile. Lack of water can also lead to stunted growth of the crop. Due to climatic changes over the decades, the crop’s yield drastically reduced.

The local market also played part in ‘killing’ the cotton industry as imported textiles continued to flood the country. This contributed to the loss of market and in the long run loss of faith in home-made cotton. Organic cotton was also considered expensive as compared to the imported textiles.

Lack of enough cotton supply finally leads to a majority of deaths of textile industries. Sustainability was hit in various ways.

Loss of jobs for a majority of employees served as a major setback in their livelihoods. Thika Cloth Mills, for example, saw some of its employees laid off. This is because cotton which served as a raw material had drastically reduced and the workload reduced. Manufacturing and textile industries which would have served as a great source of revenue for the country were closed.

Figure 3 bales of second-hand clothing. Image source: businessdaily.com

Second-hand clothes were welcomed and have taken a toll on the revival of textile industries since then. “Mitumba” created a perception in peoples’ minds that they were affordable, unique and cheap. Therefore, no efforts we placed for a long duration of time to breathe life to the cotton and textile industries.

There is some light at the end of the tunnel, however. An initiative meant to revive the cotton industry was launched in 2017. It noted that the crop was not performing well as before due to factors such as poor quality seeds that are prone to attacks by pests and diseases.

In 2018 as Kenya marked its Mashujaa day the government announced its support to embracing Bacillus Thuringensis (Bt) cotton in order to revive the industry.  Bt technology will see cotton get genetically enhanced with genes from Bt bacteria to protect the crop from caterpillar pests and diseases especially the African bollworm.

Bt will see the plant protect itself by producing a protein which tends to cause harm to pests such as the African bollworm. Researchers say that the plant’s characteristic is not affected and that Bt technology is only meant to enhance self-protection mechanisms. Cost of production will reduce as the use of pesticides goes down as well. In addition to that environmental pollution caused by pesticides will reduce human and animal exposure to the pesticides reduced.

Some African countries such as Sudan have already embraced the technology. Areas covered by Bt cotton have increased from 20 acres to more than 120 acres.

The big question

However, one question remains. Is Bt cotton the answer to the revival of cotton industries? Performance trials are currently underway in some parts of Kenya. A lot of effective measures are currently used to gear up positive results. Huge amounts of water, for example, are being drawn to irrigate the cotton fields. One then wonders, given the effects of change in climate will cotton revival yield fruits in the dry areas?

The aim to incorporate Bt cotton also stands in the way of sustainable solutions to ecological agriculture. It may seem like the deal of a century giving economic benefits such as job creation and an increase in revenues. But in terms of sustainability, the government should exhaust all negativities which seem few in the short term but are fatal in the long term.

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