A lack of access to the latest seed technology is hampering the cotton industry. The once thriving industry has deteriorated to such an extent in the last two years that 60% less cotton is now being planted.
Tanya Aucamp, independent communications specialist for Cotton SA, tells Food For Mzansi this is a shocking U-turn since the industry body celebrated an 800% growth in cotton production over a five-year period ending in 2019.
This is underscored by a 2020 BFAP report proving that cotton’s five-year average growth in its share in agriculture value-add was the highest of all agricultural products.
“Major advancements in agricultural innovation and technology, combined with better crop management, contributed to the increase in local production. Unfortunately, the growth in the hectares of cotton planted has changed in the last two seasons. Cotton fibre production has shown a decline of about 60% in hectares planted since then,” says Aucamp.
She adds that various contributors added to the decline, such as extreme weather conditions, restricted access to new cottonseed technology and farmers increasingly turning to food crops due to more favourable market prices.
‘Industry needs Bollgard-3 to grow’
In a recent media briefing hosted by Bayer, Aucamp also raised the burning concern for new technology with Klaus Eckstein, CEO of Bayer South Africa.
During the briefing she explained that access to new Bollgard-3 technology is critical, not only for the cotton industry to grow, but also to remain competitive along other rotational crops.
“Bayer owns the Bollgard technology, which is the key to unlocking more hectares,” Aucamp said. She added that, unfortunately, due to the limited hectares currently being produced, cotton seems not be a priority for the crop science giant.
This is a catch-22, added Aucamp.
“Bayer requires more hectares of production in South Africa before they are willing to consider bringing in the new seed technology to assist the industry. The farmers can’t produce more hectares as they don’t have access to suitable cultivars.”
Aucamp says due to the critical nature, Cotton SA is even willing to fund the project and to provide the resource capacity for introducing the new Bollgard-3 technology. “Regardless of this, Bayer has reported that it is not a business priority for them,” she says.
All is not doom and gloom, however. “The positive news is that the significant improvement in the international cotton price over the last 12 months will … increase the relative profitability of cotton production, both under dryland and irrigated conditions, in comparison with grains or oilseeds in the 2020-2021 season going forward.”
Aucamp says record prices were already reached in the past week.
Furthermore, cotton thrives in conditions in which many others cannot. “Cotton is natural, versatile, biodegradable and renewable. It is the only field crop that is both a fibre and a food crop,” she explains.
Dry land farmers struggling
Meanwhile, Jozeph du Plessis, a cotton farmer just outside Schweizer-Reneke in North West, tells Food For Mzansi that cotton farmers in the province are struggling on dry land.
“We don’t have irrigation in the North West province, so even though cotton seems to do very well here and can be grown here successfully, with the heat units and soil we are struggling … because of the dry land.”
Du Plessis gins his cotton in Hartswater at Vaalharts Cotton Gin.
He adds that farmers have also successfully developed markets in the Far East, which can earn them and the country valuable foreign currency. However, they don’t have access to the right cultivars to expand.
“We are really enthusiastic about cotton. We have the world export market, we can export cotton profitably. It is very well adapted to handle the heat and drought and, actually, climate change, which is making this part of the country warmer, but there is one problem we have. We don’t have access to the correct cultivars,” he says.
Regulatory red tape
Du Plessis explains that these cultivars are readily available in Australia and the United States, but cannot simply be imported.
“Those cultivars have new biotechnology in them, such as herbicide-resistant and insect-resistant biotechnology which has not yet been approved in South Africa by the regulatory authorities. It’s a long process to get that regulatory approval and the only company that can do that is Bayer.
“But they don’t want to do that because they say the market is too small and that there’s not enough farmers planting cotton or enough seeds being sold to make it worth their while to do all the trials for the regulatory approval process.”
Like Aucamp, Du Plessis is worried about the cotton industry’s future.
“We need new shorter-season cultivars, which is adapted to our region, for cotton to explode here. If we have those cultivars, the hectares will increase much more here. But we cannot get them because Bayer says we don’t have enough hectares to make it worthwhile,” he says.
A tough call to make
Eckstein said in a recent media briefing that he had empathy with the cotton industry’s dilemma.
The Bayer South Africa boss also confirmed that there had indeed been various discussions with Cotton SA and others to prioritise the local cotton industry. However, Bayer needed to ensure that it utilised its resources responsibly.
“With regard to the cotton farmers, it is not an easy discussion, believe me. It’s not an easy discussion and we had a lot of discussions with Cotton SA and various stakeholders, really, to understand and [to] be able to prioritise this. I understand the community needs. On the other side, we also need to make decisions [about] where do we play and where we don’t play.”
Eckstein said it took Bayer seven years to catch up with investments in Brazil. The company therefore needed to balance its available resources and seek alternative solutions in other markets.
“I think this is where we are today on the cotton market, which is very small. It is probably below 20 000 hectares. The anticipation was that it was going to grow to 100, 150 or 200 000 hectares. That, of course, is a challenge and it is a difficult project to move on with this type of dynamics.
“So, I am not diminishing the value of the crop and, specifically, also agriculture in South Africa. I am just saying that sometimes it is difficult to prioritise [specific industries] while we are trying to do so many other things. And to really find the right key to unleash is sometimes not an easy one,” Eckstein concluded.
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