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Malawi, biotechnology’s warm embrace

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RAKING IN ENOUGH MONEY—Funsani

By Imam Wali:

Malawi has joined countries that have adopted the cultivation of genetically modified cotton seed varieties.

Countries that have embraced new seed varieties, one of them being BT Cotton, include Kenya, Cameroon, Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria, South Africa, Sudan and Ethiopia.

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Cotton— just like tobacco, tea and sugar— is one of the strategic crops in the national export strategy and, if well managed, its genetically modified variety can significantly improve productivity, which has dropped at an alarming rate due to lack of sound investment.

According to the Seed Trade Association of Malawi, 20,000 Malawian farmers planted BT cotton seed last season.

Malawian and African cotton farmers at large were struggling to recoup their investments because they lack access to quality seeds that can increase yields and profits.

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As such, when new varieties came, a good number of farmers jumped at the opportunity.

BT Cotton farmer, Bornface Mlesi from Mtalimanja Village, Traditional Authority Khombedza in Salima District, speaks highly of new varieties.

“I have been farming for 11 years. At first I used to grow local varieties but, following the coming in of the Bt Cotton variety, I had to change because the new variety is good, free from pests such as bollworms and diseases and can improve me economically,” he says, adding that, currently, cotton farmers have doubled their production levels.

“We are now able now to produce three to four tonnes per acre. As such, when prices are good, I get K500,000 per acre. This is a good amount that can change someone’s life.

“The price issue aside, even with poor rains, I harvest something as opposed to when I was using conventional seeds,” he narrated.

“Previously, when I was using seeds of local varieties, 60 percent of the cotton production costs were being spent on pest control, which reduced cost of producing cotton by 60 percent,” he added.

According to Mlesi, if a farmer follows instructions, chances of producing up to 3,000 bags per hectare are high.

He said, for instance, that, when he was using the old varieties, he would harvest between 1,000 and 1,500 bags and, yet, it is also labour intensive because it requires frequent spraying of pesticides.

New varieties now give a farmer up to 150 bolls when the local variety would give between 40 and 50 bolls.

“The cotton is also thick and good looking,” he enthused.

According to Balaka Cotton Farmers Association Chairperson Dymex Funsani, farmers used to spray the crop six times per agricultural season but, after adopting new varieties four years ago, spraying is done once, meaning that less is spent on the procurement of pesticides.

“During the last farming season, we had four companies that showed interest in buying from us. They were purchasing produce at K500 per kilogrammes and farmers made quite a fortune,” narrated Funsani, who has made a whopping K2 million from the K700,000 he invested in farming last season.

Experts in biotechnology say new seed varieties seek to maximise production as opposed to conventional varieties, which have over the years not benefitted farmers.

It is now four years since local farmers started growing new seed cotton varieties in Malawi.

Dr Kingdom Kwapata a lecturer in biotechnology and generics at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, believes the use of bio-safety and biotechnology can address forex, fertiliser supply, climate change and fuel challenges that have rocked the country.

“The use of adopted biotechnology in the country can address numerous challenges. There are a lot of opportunities this country can explore with respect to biotechnology, the issue of food security as well as the issue of fuel [production] through bio-fuels,” he explained.

Senior lecturer in biotechnology at Luanar Bunda Campus, Abel Sefasi, noted that biotechnology in agriculture has come to solve challenges that were being solved by other approaches, just that biotechnology works in an efficient manner.

“Challenges facing agriculture include pests, insects, diseases, weeds and even soil issues. Soil fertility is a problem. So, those problems have been solved in the past by getting a strong plant and a weak plant and crossing them to get a bit stronger, young plants that can grow in the soil, in the environment, but, sometimes, you have challenges

“As such, biotechnology is a strength. You can now get the genes or DNA, which is the power from crops that are not related. You can put in these crops what you want. For example, [when we talk of] maize in Malawi, one can put a drought-tolerant gene. At international level, Soya bean has been tolerant to herbicides but maize has been improved to be tolerant to insects. Even rice has been improved to have high vitamin A.

“With the backing of Seed Trade Association of Malawi- Stam, Quton Malawi facilitated introduction of BT Cotton in the country.

According to Quton Malawi General Manager John Lungu, farmers are now making huge profits due to the quality and quantity of varieties they are producing.

“Previously, harvests were low basically because of pests and diseases. Now, with the new variety coming in to replace the local variety, [these are problems of the past]. With local varieties, farmers were harvesting an average of 200 to 500 kilogrammes per hectare but the BT cotton hybrid are yielding four to five tonnes per hectare,” he explained.

He, however, said new varieties such as BT cotton are not a silver bullet as they also need to be supported with agronomy and weather, adding that with more trainings and time, cotton farmers will be able to produce two tonne per hectare, moving away from 200 to 2,000 kilogrammes per hectare as other farmers are already harvesting three tonnes.

“The varieties are environment-friendly and we will ensure that more farmers plant them. They are also destined to alleviate poverty,” he indicated.

A visit to cotton markets also indicated that, in the 2021-22 farming season, current varieties sold at between K500 and K700 per kilogramme, as opposed to previous varieties, which used to fetch an average of K250 per kilogramme.

With an allocation of K1.6 billion [$2.2 million] in the 2011- 12 financial year, Malawi was able to produce a record of 100,000 metric tonnes that year.

Over the years, this figure has drastically dropped.

The Cotton Council of Malawi estimates that, on average, the country is producing about 15,000 metric tonnes per year, which rakes in K10 billion against a ginning capacity of 600,000 metric tonnes. With the adoption of new technologies in Malawi, it is estimated that the country will soon produce nearly 40,000 metric tonnes.

National Commission for Science and Technology (NCST) Chief Research Services Officer Lyson Kampira said since the introduction of the new cotton variety, the yield increased to 800 kg per hectare from 400 kg per hectare—a substantial improvement, adding that Malawi must use biotechnology to address poverty, hunger, disease and enhance Malawi’s future development and economic growth.

The government has been very supportive of GM crops by putting in place the bio-safety legislation needed to manage and regulate the biotech industry.

According to Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson Gracian Lungu, the ministry is promoting the breeding of seeds locally.

“The ministry understands that the improved variety is expensive; so, it is currently working with research institutions to breed the new variety in the country so that it can be readily be available to farmers at affordable prices. The ministry is further working on incorporating cotton farmers in AIP [Affordable Inputs Programme],” he said.

“Agricultural biotechnology has rapidly gained popularity among farmers because of its ability to resist the devastating bollworm pest without the use of expensive and potentially harmful pesticides,” Lungu added.

This means farmers who have adopted GM cotton use less insecticides while earning more profit from reduced costs and higher yields.

Despite higher seed costs, the impressive adoption rate of GM cotton in Malawi can be attributed to the benefits that both large and small-scale farmers enjoy. These include higher profits due to better yields and less pesticide spraying, which cuts costs and contributes to improved human and environmental health.

Cotton Variety Evaluation, Release, and Registration in Malawi, which was once responsible for releasing crop varieties in the country, has been replaced by the Agricultural Technology Clearing Committee (ATCC).

The ATCC is made up of representatives of partners in agriculture, such as the Dars, Department of Crop Production, Department of Agricultural Extension Services, Agricultural Research and Extension Trust, Tea Research Foundation, Pesticide Board of Malawi, National Commission of Science and Technology and the University of Malawi.

The first BT cotton CFT were conducted in 2011.

Malawi approved Bollgard II cotton event for environmental release in 2016, after conducting confined trials under the supervision of the NBA. Thereafter, four EDVs underwent NPTs in five locations in 2017 and 2018—after variety registration and commercial release were applied.

Biotechnology will help Malawi speedily attain food security and create wealth for the nation so as to achieve socio-economic development as specified in the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS). Biotechnology will play a big role towards transforming Malawi from being a predominantly importing and consuming economy to a predominantly producing and exporting economy.

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