Cotton is part of our daily lives. You've probably already touched something made from cotton today: bedding, towels or your clothes. Did you know cotton might also have factored into the food you eat?
Cotton produces two useful commodities: the cotton fibers harvested for textiles, and cottonseed, which is used in animal feed due to the high fat and protein content. So, if you eat meat or dairy, cottonseed likely plays a role in how your food is produced.
More than 97% of U.S.-grown cotton is GMO. GMOs dominate the landscape in other cotton-producing countries such as India and China. Genetically modified cotton is so ubiquitous in the supply chain that the Non-GMO Project considers it a high-risk crop.
GMO varieties of cotton that are currently commercially available are generally engineered for one of two traits or for both at once. Let's take a closer look at those traits and their long-term impacts.
Herbicide-tolerant GMOs are crops engineered to withstand applications of certain weedkillers (glyphosate is the most common one). Herbicide-tolerant crops allow farmers to use weed killers throughout the growing season without damaging their cash crop — but there can be significant drawbacks over time.
Unsurprisingly, the ability to spray more herbicides leads to more herbicide spraying. Since the introduction of herbicide-tolerant GMOs in the 1990s, glyphosate use in the U.S. has increased 15-fold. More chemicals in the field can damage soil microorganisms and reduce biodiversity on farms, and over time, the targeted weeds develop resistance to the most commonly used herbicides.
In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified glyphosate as a probable human carcinogen. There is a growing body of evidence that glyphosate poses serious health risks to humans.
Genetically modified cotton may also be engineered to produce its own insecticide, derived from a naturally occurring soil bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt. While Bt has been used externally for decades, GMO crops such as Bt cotton and Bt corn produce the toxin within the plant.
As we discussed previously with herbicide-tolerant crops, increased exposure to pesticides can cause problems. Just like weeds that develop resistance to overused herbicides, target insects with constant exposure to Bt ultimately build immunity to it. Bt-resistant pests are a growing problem in many areas where Bt cotton is cultivated.
The emergence of "superbugs" and secondary pests can also impact farmers who don't grow GMOs. For example, external applications of Bt are permitted in organic production for pest control. However, if Bt stops being effective because genetically modified Bt cotton and corn contribute to superbugs, organic farmers will lose a valuable tool.
GMO cotton might someday play a more direct role in our diets. GMO developers recently created a GMO variety with reduced levels of gossypol, a naturally occurring toxin in cotton that is poisonous to humans. While this GMO is not yet commercially available, the USDA has it and the FDA has approved it for human consumption.
A biotech problem
Bt cotton has been adopted to address the problem of insect pests, primarily bollworms, that have developed resistance to regular pesticides. Reuters described the desperation felt by farmers in this situation: "Even when you dropped the bollworm larvae into a bucket of poison, farmers said, they kept swimming."
However, industrial-style agriculture and the agrichemical industry are significant drivers of this problem. Extensive monocropping, in which a single crop covers hundreds or thousands of acres, prioritizes homogeneity and uniformity on the landscape. Monocropping invites pest pressures in the form of weeds, diseases or insects — to whom it effectively offers an all-you-can-eat buffet. The Non-GMO Project is skeptical of the costly and unsustainable "solutions" provided by the same system — and, in many cases, the same actors — that caused the problem in the first place.
Today, we give the last word to scientist Laura Kavanaugh, who worked at the agrichemical company Syngenta for 12 years, helping to develop GMO crops. In a recent interview with The Organic & Non-GMO Report, Kavanaugh described her realization that short-term impacts don't support long-term solutions. "GMOs fundamentally drive a very, very narrow approach, and that’s not a sustainable position."