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U.S. cotton production – best imitated, not dismantled

U.S. cotton producers had their share of problems in 2010 – unpredictable weather, rising input costs, changing politics and volatile markets. But it could have been a lot worse. They could be farming cotton in the West African country of Burkina Faso.

A Bloomberg article reported in December that Burkina Faso is giving its cotton producers a raise in 2011 – from 17 cents a pound to 19 cents a pound. The global market, on the other hand, is now offering nine times that much.

It makes the oft-reported claims that U.S. cotton subsidies drive down prices and hurt West African cotton producers all the more puzzling. How could these reports, including one a few years back in the Wall Street Journal, ignore the fact that most of the market value of cotton is being withheld from Burkina Faso cotton producers?

West African cotton producers are also often taken in by unscrupulous chemical representatives who either tie farm credit to chemical purchases or recommend chemicals that aren’t needed. Burkina Faso’s cotton industry is in desperate need of an overhaul.

On a positive note, there are a couple of efforts underway to improve yield and returns for Burkina Faso cotton producers. One is led by the Netherlands and is primarily through the application of organic farming techniques. With the average size of West African farms less than 15 acres, and plenty of labor, an organic approach is not a bad idea. But it’s still a Third World way of doing things, and probably not sustainable beyond a niche market.

A much more promising approach is the introduction of Bt cotton in the country. Ngozi Sams, reporting in the Nigerian newspaper, Next, reported that prior to the adoption of Bt cotton, the national cotton yield in Burkina Faso had dropped to 325 pounds per acre. The article stated that “insecticides were proving ineffective with losses due to bollworm as high as 40 percent even with full application of insecticides.”

By 2007-08, Burkina Faso annual cotton production decreased to 680,000 bales.

In desperation, the country approved two varieties of Bt cotton for seed production and commercialization. The effort was a collaboration between Monsanto, the Burkina Faso ginning company Sofitex and the Burkina Faso research organization INERA.

According to Kinyua M’Mbijjewe, spokesperson for Monsanto Kenya Ltd., the seeds were developed by INERA, sent to the United States for insertion of the Bollgard II gene, increased by Sofitex and distributed to growers.

Burkina Faso still has a ways to go to improve profitability for cotton producers, but the adoption of Bt cotton has been a huge hit. Cotton producers in the nation expect to produce 2.3 million bales of cotton in 2011 and even more in 2012.

At least one country is figuring out that the U.S. cotton industry is a system best imitated, not dismantled. 

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