GM cotton fails to impress

Against the background of public concern about GM food, and Monsanto’s claims that Bt cotton is the fastest adopted new product in the history of agriculture, Dorothy Myers takes a look at the problems with GM cotton especially for small scale farmers in Africa.

As concerns have increased about insect resistance and environmental and health problems associated with massive and widespread use of pesticides in conventional cotton production, companies, mainly Monsanto, have responded by producing several types of genetically modified (GM) cotton. Bt (‘Bollgard’ or ‘Ingard’) cotton is engineered to produce its own pest-killing toxin and Roundup Ready has been engineered for resistance to the herbicide glyphosate, also produced by Monsanto. In addition there are types which are engineered for both. Both Bt cotton and Roundup Ready cotton come with their own sets of problems. 
    One concern about wide-scale use of Bt cotton is that insect pests will develop resistance and that it will directly or indirectly kill beneficial insects(1). Bt is commonly used in organic agriculture and its benefits will be severely limited by insects becoming resistant. Claims that Roundup Ready cotton will lead to a reduction in herbicide use are still to be proven. There is also a danger that the genes for herbicide tolerance could be transferred from the GM crops to closely related weeds grown nearby thus making it difficult to control those weeds which were originally susceptible to the herbicide glyphosate(2). 
    Despite these concerns, worldwide planting of all three types of GM cotton has increased very rapidly from 775,000 ha in 1996 to over 2.5 million ha in 1998(3). Most of this is in the US which has increased from 730,000 ha in 1996, to 2 million ha in 1998. In 1999 the expectation was that 45% of all cotton planted would be GM(4). Monsanto’s sales of agrochemicals and seeds rose by over 23% in 1998 to US$4 billion with sales in the fourth quarter up 40%. Following acquisitions, Monsanto now owns 85% of the US cotton seed market(5). 

Variable results         
But all may not be going as well as Monsanto would have us believe with GM cotton in the US. In 1996, Bt cotton failed to control bollworm infestation in the southeast of the US (and similar problems were reported in Australia); Bt resistance to pink bollworm was reported in California and Arizona and Monsanto was criticised for inadequate resistance management programmes. In 1997 in some counties of Arizona, farmers reported incomes less than for conventional cotton production due to lower average yields and increased costs for ‘technology’ fees, growth regulators and the need to harvest twice. Cotton boll drop was reported in 1997 in Arkansas and Mississippi in Roundup Ready cotton(6). Some 190 farmers in several US states are engaged in legal disputes with the seed company Delta Pine and Land, Co (a subsidiary of Monsanto) for losses of income after using Paymaster 1220 a dual GM cotton seed variety. In 1998, farmers in Georgia planted about 18% (over 500,000 ha) of the total cotton area with Paymaster 1220. One Georgia farmer believes that the companies rushed the seed to market without adequate testing and when they began receiving complaints misled growers and agriculture officials about the extent of the problem(7).  

Spreading technology globally
Monsanto is making aggressive efforts to introduce GM cotton into many cotton growing countries. In 1998, GM cotton was grown on 41,000 ha in Mexico, on 12,000 ha in South Africa, on 8,000 ha in Argentina as well as in China and Australia(8). 
    In Australia, strategies to reduce the use of insecticides and manage pest resistance are becoming heavily dependent on the use of GM crops, especially Bt cotton Ingard. Bt cotton made up 8% of planting in 1996-97, increasing to 15% or 60,000 ha in 1997-98. Results were reported as ‘variable’ and in areas where insect pressure was heavy such as Darling Downs, as ‘extremely disappointing’(9). Ingard cotton performance in other cotton growing areas was also highly variable and growers had to support the crop with synthetic insecticides, similar to non-Bt crops, to achieve economic yields for the season. 
    Efforts to introduce GM cotton in Africa are nevertheless gathering momentum. GM crops are being promoted as the answer to global food security—especially in Africa. Food security is not a matter of the general availability of food but of access to it. For small farmers in Africa, there will be many problems with the technology which could negatively affect their livelihoods and may very well reduce their capacity to access food supplies rather than improve it—especially when the technology is in the hands of a few big operators which will dominate the market (see also page 3). 
    In Zimbabwe, recent efforts to introduce GM technology have met considerable hostility, much of it centred on Monsanto’s proposed Technology Protection System (TPS). TPS, known as ‘Terminator’ technology by its opponents, prevents seeds from re-germinating in a second growing season and renders farm-saved seeds sterile thus forcing farmers to purchase new seeds every year(10). As a pre-emptive strike, this technology has already been banned in India. 
    Monsanto is promoting GM cotton technology in the Francophone cotton growing counties of West Africa. Staff involved with this project have had a significant involvement in the development and implementation of the pre-emptive resistance management strategy introduced for Bt cotton in 1996-97 in Australia. This strategy is of crucial importance in minimising risk of resistance(11). It includes, for example, using a mixture of seeds and specific buffer zones. The question to be asked is whether the West African community has been educated well enough on this technology to be able to adopt it successfully. 
    There are other technical issues around the introduction of GM technology in Africa such as seed variety selection. Experiments with GM cotton are taking place worldwide using the same varieties even though it is generally acknowledged that plant varieties must first and foremost be adapted to local conditions(12). 
    But the main problem could be the type of contract which farmers would be required to enter into which prohibits them from keeping their seeds for subsequent sowings year on year. The poor African farmer with little resources may try to keep GM seeds and re-use them. Any security measures Monsanto takes to prevent growers from re-using seeds will fail because Africans by culture protect and support each other. If GM seeds are re-used, yields will fall in subsequent years and farmers may be tempted to redress their losses by over-spraying with cheaper, older pesticides. These pesticides are readily available in parts of Africa. Insect resistance could then increase both in transgenic and conventional cotton crops in addition to the environmental and health problems arising from excessive pesticides use(13). Farmers’ livelihoods would clearly be affected under this scenario. 
    Researchers at the Centre Internationale de Cooperation Agronomique pour le Developpement (CIRAD) in France, which works extensively in West Africa, echo the comment by the farmer from Georgia in the US: that the introduction of GM cotton technology has been much too hasty without adequate testing and there are fears for the consequences in the longer term(14). (By Dorothy Myers)

1. Bt: What future? Biocontrol News and Information,  1998, 19(2).
2. D Myers and S Stolton, eds. Organic Cotton: from field to final product, London, IT Publications, 1999 pp 17-19.
3. S Barber, Transgenic plants: field testing and commercialisation including a consideration of novel herbicide resistant oilseed rape. In Gene Flow and Agriculture Relevance for Transgenic Crops, British Crop Protection Council 1999.
4. R Cummins and B Lilliston, News and Analysis on Genetic Engineering, Food Bytes, No. 17, 2 March 1999.
5. Agrow, PJB Publications, No. 321, 29 January 1999.
6. Op. cit. 4.
7. Augusta Chronicle, 25 January 1999, cited in Global Pesticide Campaigner, April 1999.
8. Agrow, No. 317, 27 November 1998.
9. Cotton Research and Development Corporation. Spotlight on Cotton Research, CRDC Activities Report 1998’.
10. IPS Press Report, April 29, 1999.
11. W Harris and A J Shaw, eds, Cotton Pesticides Guide 1998-1999, NSW Agriculture, 1998, pp19-28.
12. Pers. comm. Maurice Vaissayre, CIRAD, , March 1999.
13. Pers. comm. Robert Mensah, Australian Cotton Research Institute, 30 April 1999.
14. Op. cit. 12.

[This article first appeared in Pesticides News No.44, June 1999, p6]