GM Cotton: A safe alternative to pesticides or Biotech industry plot?

Most people think of cotton as a pure, natural fiber that has little or no negative impact on the environment, when in reality, cotton uses more pesticides than any other crop. Every year, the bollworm destroys a large part of the world’s cotton yield. To combat this pest, farmers spray their cotton fields with insecticides up to 20 times per year! To put an end to this deleterious practice, Monsanto launched the first GM cotton in 1997.


            Monsanto scientist spliced a gene from bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium which grows in the soil, giving birth to BT cotton. Like BT corn, BT cotton produces crystals protein, a toxin which is very specific. Unlike insecticides which wipe out both harmful and beneficial insects, the toxin emitted by BT cotton is selective, and is toxic to only a small number of pests, including the bollworm. Since BT is broken down quickly in our bodies, it is harmless to humans.


            In countries like China, where environmental problems are widespread, BT cotton is a step towards preserving the environment. Chinese farmers were among the first to grow BT cotton. Pesticide use has gone down by 70% in a country where pesticide pollution used to be norm. Among the numerous benefits is a huge decrease in runoff from agricultural fields, which could be part of the solution to China’s drinking water crisis.


            While many farmers have been quick to plant BT cotton, others regard this new crop with skepticism. Some claim that the problem of resistance, already of major concern, will grow out of control. Since this transgenic cotton constantly emits toxins, nonresistant pests will be unable to repopulate fields like they would when pesticides are used. Instead of resistant bollworms making up a small fraction of the total bollworm population, they would reproduce and become 100% of the pest population. Some studies are already pointing to a spike in the number of resistant bollworms in BT cotton fields.


            Another argument used by environmental groups is that biotechnology companies are misleading us. The companies which used to claim that pesticide use was harmless and even beneficial to humans are now telling us that BT cotton is a safe alternative. Activists opposed to GMO’s claim that the biotechnology industry is making the same mistake twice.

Prevalence of Bt cotton, circa 1998

            Today, the cultivation of BT cotton is widespread. A total of 15 million hectares (43% of the world’s cotton) of the cotton grown in 2007 was transgenic. Most BT cotton is grown in the US and China, but it is also common in India, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Mexico, and Columbia. The production of BT cotton has not yet been approved in the EU.

Citation 12, Citation 10

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