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  • Biotech cotton

    Chapter 5 - Market segments - Types of cotton 

    The biotech cotton in commercial use today has been genetically engineered to be tolerant to herbicides or insect resistant. Of the types of transgenes currently available for commercial production in cotton, two provide tolerance to herbicides and one is resistant to bollworms (Bt, from Bacillus thuringiensis). Bacillus thuringiensis is a very common bacterium occurring in the soil and capable of producing ‘cry’ proteins. The ‘cry’ proteins are toxic to certain types of insects (e.g. moths such as bollworms) that attack cotton, and the action is specific to those insects. The target insect must ingest the Bacillus thuringiensis ‘cry’ protein for the protein to be effective.

    Bt cotton was first planted on a commercial scale in 1996 in Australia and the United States. ‘Stacked’ gene varieties having herbicide resistance and the Bt gene were introduced in 1997. Biotech cotton has been officially approved for commercial release in nine countries (Argentina, Australia, China, Colombia, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa, United States) and experimentation is under way in several other countries, notably in Burkina Faso. Monsanto has a dominant position and controls about 80% of commercial biotech cotton.

    The first generation of Bt cotton (Bollgard I) was designed to eliminate the need to spray pesticides to control boll weevil infestations. The second generation of Bollgard technology is intended to suppress damage by other pests and the need for supplemental spraying that was commonly needed for the first generation varieties.

    Farming with biotech cotton has an immediate positive effect on the environment. Cotton requires more pesticide use than any other crop, and all of the new biotech varieties are designed to reduce the use of pesticides that are harmful to human and environmental health.

    Biotech cotton is genetically modified to produce a toxin that kills certain insects or resists certain herbicides, not to increase yields. Claims made about the ability of biotech cotton to increase yields relate to its capacity to reduce damage caused by insects or weeds. As a result of the adoption of insect-resistant cotton, the number of insecticide applications and the quantity of insecticide used per hectare of cotton have decreased. However, farmers still have to spray for non-target insects that are not controlled by biotech cotton.

    The major disadvantage of biotech cotton is the relatively high cost of the seed and technology fee. The commercialization of biotech products requires a long process of regulatory approval. Countries have to pay a technology fee to owners of the genes, and this is limiting the adoption of the technology, particularly in developing countries. Because a private company owns the genes inserted into cotton, countries are legally bound not to insert the genes into their own varieties and start using them.

    The economic benefits of biotech cotton depend on whether the increase in yields and the reduction in chemical application cost outweigh the higher seed cost.

    Genetic modification is a new technique that is far from fully understood and the impacts on the environment and human health could take years to appear. One of the major concerns with Bt cotton is that target pests could rapidly develop resistance to the toxin, leading to increased pest problems. In the absence of a clearly defined resistance management strategy that involves planting non-Bt cotton ‘refuge’ areas, some cotton pests are likely to develop resistance to Bt cotton. The potential emergence of resistance to Bt among insects threatens the long-term viability of Bt cotton. There is also potential for harmful environmental impacts. The use of those herbicides that biotech cotton is designed to tolerate will undoubtedly increase. Foreign genes introduced into the cotton may be transferred from the biotech cotton to related wild species and conventional cotton being grown nearby. Once a transgene is introduced into the environment, it would be difficult if not impossible to remove it if harmful effects for human or environmental health were discovered. Gene flow could occur between Bt cotton and local varieties or wild species of cotton, thereby jeopardizing these reserves of biodiversity; and contamination by biotech cotton could compromise the entire production of organic cotton in a region, since organic certification criteria prohibit genetically modified organisms. Consumers may wish to avoid biotech products because of ethical or safety concerns although there are, at the moment, no provisions for labelling in textiles or in cottonseed oil.

    ICAC estimates that biotech cotton accounted for over 40% of world production and world exports in 2006/07.