Scientists managing confined trials of Bt Cotton in the country have expressed optimism that, despite rigors of regulatory frameworks in the country’s biotechnology sector, the variety will be released soon by government.
Bt Cotton trial manager Professor James Bokosi from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) said this last week during at Bt Cotton Open Day held at Toleza Farm in Balaka.
Bokosi—while underlining that local farmers need the variety to enhance their productivity—emphasised that they have scaled up confined trials to ensure that all safety issues are resolved before the variety is taken to the farmers.
The confined trial at Toleza Farm is just part of trials, which are being done in Salima, at Luanar and also in Chikwawa District.
According to Bokosi, the cotton at Toleza was grown in February this year and during the field day last week, stakeholders appreciated the progress and witnessed how the Bt Cotton variety is able to fight bollworms—one of the damaging pests in Malawi’s cotton—without the use of pesticides.
Earlier in July, board chairperson for Cotton Farmers Association of Malawi (Cfam) David Rice told Business Review that time has come for local farmers to replicate benefits of growing Bt Cotton, as other farmers in Africa.
“Bt Cotton is the way to go for farmers. We have been to the trials at Luanar several times and we saw how productive the seed is. In fact, some of our colleagues travelled to Bukina Faso and South Africa to appreciate how farmers are benefiting from growing Bt Cotton. We want this seed released.
“We are facing a great challenge in managing pests, which is very costly to us. With Bt Cotton this will not be a problem,” Rice said.
Currently, a cotton farmer, using current varieties in Malawi produces 600 to 800 kilogrammes per hectare.
However, Rice said with Bt Cotton, coupled with good rains, studies show that a farmer could produce more than 1 500 kilogrammes per hectare.
The Bt Cotton seed is currently with the Environmental Affairs Department after three years of confined trials at Luanar.
Biosafety registrar Caroline Theka, however, told Business Review last week that the National Biosafety Regulatory Committee (NBRC) is the legal entity that has the responsibility of assessing biosafety aspects of biotechnologies such as genetic modification and making recommendations to the minister in that regard.
At the moment, she added, the secretariat has just received annual reports for the last growing season.
“These reports, as well as comments from the public on general release will form part of the documents that will be evaluated by the committee as it is evaluating the application.
“The committee makes a recommendation to the minister on its decision and if a licence is issued then the applicant is required to go to the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development for further analysis, as this is an agricultural crop.
“The ministry will, after its analysis in accordance with its legislation, make a decision on whether or not to release the crop to farmers,” said Theka.
She added that, as government, the biggest challenge they face is lack of understanding of the regulatory systems currently in place, and the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders.
“In order to overcome this, public awareness needs to be carried out to the various key players such as policy makers, researchers, CSOs and the general public,” Theka said.