BY MTHANDAZO NYONI
ZIMBABWE’S cotton producers have called upon government to embrace genetically-modified (GM) cotton varieties to enhance the country’s competitiveness and boost production.
Government has, since 2006, banned the import of all genetically-modified produce and the use of seeds enhanced with genetically-modified organisms, known as GMOs, arguing they are harmful to the soil and the environment.
Cotton Producers and Marketers Association chairman Steward Mubonderi told Standardbusiness last week that government should embrace GM cotton varieties or Bt cotton to boost production.
“If you go to South Africa they are now on GMOs. Malawi has the same story, but in Zimbabwe we haven’t considered the issue of GMOs, yet products such as soap, cooking oil, everything that we import from those countries, are GMO products,” he said.
“I think it is high time that government considered the issue of GMOs in the country so that farmers can produce more.”
African countries that have adopted GM crops include, among others, South Africa, Botswana and Malawi.
Ironically, Zimbabwe regularly imports food from these countries.
“Our seed varieties were largely released about 10 years ago. We have some old varieties. We call upon government to avail new high yielding cotton varieties,” Mubonderi said.
According to the 2016 report titled “Genetically modified crops in Zimbabwe: current policies and alternative strategies for enhancing crop, livestock production, competitiveness, and exports”, Zimbabwe stands to benefit from GM cotton.
“Experience from farmers around the world shows that by growing Bt cotton, an insect-resistant transgenic crop, they achieve higher yields and profits in comparison to their counterparts that grow conventional varieties,” the report, co-authored by Quton Seed Company executive director Edworks Mhandu, Idah Sithole-Niang and Shantharam Sivramiah, reads in part.
The report recommended that government should take a bold decision to functionalise its established regulatory authority and move forward with the introduction of biotech crops into the country’s agriculture.
“Zimbabwe has no time to lose on this point,” it said.
In response to farmers’ submissions, Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Settlements deputy minister Vangelis Haritatos even though admitting that the introduction of high yielding cotton and crop varieties was critical, shot down the GMO proposal.
“The current drought has depressed output and therefore we continue to call on seed houses to invest more in research and development with the assistance of our Department of Research and Specialist Services to continue to work on hybrids that will be able to sustain the harsh climatic changes that we are currently experiencing,” he said.
Haritatos said given this background, farmers needed to plant early this year because they normal to above normal rainfall were expected in most regions of the country up to December.
“Our policy and position as government regarding GMOs is that we do not allow their growing,” he said.
He encouraged farmers, through their associations, to make representation to government and to the National Biotechnology Authority to discuss the pros and cons of growing GMO cotton seed varieties.
“However, government position at this stage is that we only allow GMO free seed, as previously mentioned,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mubonderi said farmers throughout the country were more than ready to grow cotton as prices that were offered by government last year were very attractive compared to other crops.
Also farmers were being enticed by free inputs they receive from government under the Presidential Free Input Scheme.
“There is a shift by farmers coming to grow cotton because those are free inputs. Government has done very well to attract the farmers and with the current shortage of foreign currency prevailing in the country, the only crop that can transform things and bring in foreign currency is cotton,” he said.
“Farmers are geared and I don’t know whether government would be able to satisfy demand.”
He pleaded with government to make inputs available to farmers on time.
“Remember, this year we are likely to get rainfall earlier as projected by Meteorological Department. It means farmers must have their inputs early,” he said.
Farmers under the association are targeting to produce 350 000 tonnes of cotton this coming season.
“If we get favourable rainfall and get inputs early, the farmers are ready to grow, we will achieve that. The price that was offered was fair but it was eroded by inflation,” he said.
During the last season, Mubonderi said farmers were affected by drought, price instability, production cost escalations among others.
As a result, they only managed to produce about 70 000 tonnes of cotton against a target of 250 000 tonnes.
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union director Jeremiah Tevera commended Cotton Company of Zimbabwe (Cottco) for a viable programme to finance cotton production in the country.
“People had stopped commercial cotton production due to viability reasons. Prices were not good enough. I’m happy that Cottco is coming up with a programme to finance cotton production. Farmers want a viable production model,” he said.
Tevera said farmers would want to produce the crop with reasonable costs and also find a viable market.
“Anything short of that will lead to rejection,” he said, adding farming needed a win-win situation.
Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union president Abdul Nyathi said programmes such as Command Agriculture as well as Presidential Free Input Scheme were noble but there was a need for government to distribute inputs under these programmes, timely.
“Actions, actions, actions, government should practically support farmers with inputs and this should be done timely,” he said.
Cottco administers the Presidential Free Inputs Scheme, a state funded programme meant to increase cotton production. Approximately 400 000 farmers get assistance under the programme every year.
The programme, launched in 2015, has helped the resuscitation of the industry with output growing from 28 000 tonnes, the lowest in nearly two decades, to
143 000 tonnes last year.
Nyathi said if government failed to supply farmers with inputs this week (last week), it could mean another failed season.
“By now government should have supplied farmers with inputs. Otherwise it could be difficult to produce cotton this season. Farmers on their own would not be able to finance cotton production due to escalating costs. The costs are unbearable,” he said.
Cotton production in Zimbabwe has declined sharply over the years due to uncompetitive prices and high input costs for farmers among other constraints.
Output fell from 283 000 tonnes in 2012 to less than 200 000 tonnes by 2013 before it plunged to less than 200 000 tonnes in the three years that followed.
At its peak, Zimbabwe produced more than 353 000 tonnes, raking in over US$200 million in forex earnings.
The crop used to create employment for some 200 000 people.
Cotton is a drought resistant crop that can thrive in marginal areas and we encourage both farmers and contractors or investors to increase area put under cotton. Increased production will contribute positively to export earnings and the Gross Domestic Product.
Agricultural Marketing Authority chief executive officer Nancy Zitsanza said registration of cotton contractors was currently underway and most of the contractors that were operational during the 2018/19 production season have registered for this season.
She said the registration period has been extended to the end of this month to give ample time to contractors or investors to finalise their decisions.
“Farmers are contracted by registered contractors. Mobilisation of farmers by contractors started in September and continues until the end of farmer registration period in December,” she said.
“This past season, 2018/19, a total of 357 088 farmers were contracted and the target is to surpass this figure in 2019/20 as we are hopeful that the forthcoming rainfall season will be better than 2018/19 which was a drought year,” Zitsanza said.
She said Zimbabwean cotton lint was highly regarded, locally, regionally and internationally.
“The opportunities for Zimbabwean cotton are abound. The lint has markets locally in the textile industry, the SADC region, Europe, China and Asia and the Middle East. Zimbabwean cotton is in high demand in all these markets. We export over 70% of the cotton produced in the country into these markets.”
She said there was a marked improvement in prices that were paid to farmers by contractors or buyers in 2019 which reached $3.30 per kg by the end of the season.
“This will incentivise farmers to take up cotton production in the 2019/20 season,” she said.
Cotton remains an important source of livelihoods for most rural communities.