Burkina Faso’s agriculture, like that of many African countries, faces several challenges to boost its agricultural yields. These include climate change, drought and insect pests. Several hectares of various crops have suffered from the fury of these pests in several localities of Burkina Faso during previous agricultural seasons. To face these attacks, agricultural and environmental biotechnologies can be an alternative to protect the environment and the plants, and this by genetically modified organisms able to better resist the pests through their own insecticide.
According to the Directorate of Plant Protection and Packaging of the Ministry of Agriculture, Hydro-Agricultural Development and Mechanization, the monitoring report of the phytosanitary situation of the agricultural season of wet season 2021-2022, as of September 24, 2021 indicates 4301.39 infested hectares, of which 1465.7 treated in the south-west region. For the past agricultural season, 14265.35 hectares of fields were infested with an infestation rate of 80.34%.
The crops affected are corn, sorghum and soybeans. The pests are mainly armyworms (CLA), with foliar damage. The situation is less worrying this year because of the regular and intense rainfall and most corn fields are at the flowering stage, which is not favorable to the development of pests, says Baba Boni, the head of plant protection at the regional directorate in charge of agriculture in the southwest. Pest attacks are causing huge losses to producers, according to Sié Vokité Somé, an agricultural entrepreneur in Gaoua. « Last year, I made a huge loss. For example, out of three hectares I lost at least one hectare. On my total production I lost at least eight tons of corn. Also, I practice the associated culture, the corn and the cowpea. As cowpea is sweet, at this level it was a total loss, » he adds.
The limits of insecticides
Pest control has been a concern for agricultural technicians and producers for some years. Insecticide treatments have reached their limit in view of the resurgence of attacks by crop pests, says Sié Vokité Somé, an agricultural entrepreneur in Gaoua.
In response to this concern of farmers, researchers are proposing solutions through agricultural and environmental biotechnologies. For the researcher at the Institute of Environment and Agricultural Research (INERA) and specialist in genetics and plant improvement, Dr. Edgar Traoré, the first biotechnologies contributed to protect the environment. « In Burkina Faso, we have the example of certain genetically modified crops with the Bt toxin (Bacillus thuringiensis) such as Bt corn and Bt cotton, » he says.
He explains that in the case of cotton, when it was conventional, about 6 liters of pesticides were used per hectare to control pests. The larger the area, the more pesticides are used. « Yet these products are harmful to the environment because their origin is often not controlled, » says Dr. Traoré. According to him, the researchers realized that the cotton plant can produce its own insecticide called « gossipole » which allows it to be more rustic and resistant to these pests, which is not new because it exists in nature. He added: « Gossipole is a poison, which does not allow the use of its seeds for food. Researchers have worked to develop cotton plants without gossip, so the cotton plant has been disarmed. He emphasizes that biotechnology has succeeded in using a natural insecticide whose genetic information is inserted in the cotton plant, which has given rise to genetically modified cotton.
There are benefits to this modification. « This cotton will make its insecticide that controls only one type of pest. Also, the positive insects that we needed to protect such as bees, passing locusts that don’t do damage can survive. Also, the cotton plant will produce a lot because its major pest is controlled thanks to an insecticide protein that it will produce itself. This technique is a biotechnology that has allowed us to reduce the use of pesticides significantly, » explains Dr. Edgar Traoré.
Thanks to these agricultural and environmental biotechnologies, the treatment burden of producers is lightened because the number of treatments is reduced, confides Dr. Edgar Traoré.
This reduction in workload is confirmed by a farmer from the village of Koumbia in the Tuy province, François Tanni. « Processing conventional cotton is very tedious. In the past, I had the labor, but my children are adults now and are on their own. The labor is not at hand as it was in the past, and with my age I can no longer ensure several treatments in a cotton field, so this variety of Bt cotton that is more resistant to pests is a good boon for us producers. We save on labor and on the purchase of pesticides, » says François Tanni.
On the environmental level, the genetically modified plant that receives low-dose insecticides helps protect the environment, hence the environmental and agricultural biotechnology, says Traoré.
The assurance of scientists
Various comments were made about these genetically modified organisms. According to the breeder at INERA Farakoba (Bobo-Dioulasso), Dr. Abdallah Dao, the nuance that should be highlighted is that the conventional variety and the improved one, is the same thing. « To the conventional variety has been added the Bt gene, which will produce the Bt toxin, theoretically we still have the same species that is more resistant to pests for a better yield, » reassures Dr. Dao.
For the coordinator of the OFAB project (Open Forum for Agricultural Biotechnology), Dr. Egdar Traoré, the debate on these biotechnologies have been conducted on social networks rather than by scientists. This unknown, he continues, is managed by biosafety, which is the « scientist’s policeman », who ensures that ethics are respected. « This explains the presence of the national agency of biosafety which, beyond the genetically modified organisms, watches over the risk of deployment of any product, even conventional, which can be dangerous for the populations, » he says.