We’re all familiar with cotton—this versatile crop is used to make a good portion of the clothing and other textiles most people use daily. However, these consumer goods represent only a small piece of cotton’s impact on our economic and environmental systems. Cotton is considered a high-risk crop under the Non-GMO Project Standard because GMO cotton is widely commercially available. About 94 percent of cotton grown in the United States has been genetically modified. This means any product containing or derived from cotton is subject to extra scrutiny when it goes through our Product Verification Program.
You may have noticed that there aren’t many Non-GMO Project Verified cotton goods such as clothing, linens, or bandages at this time. There are, however, many Verified products that contain animal-derived ingredients. Cotton is extremely prevalent in animal feed. When animals eat GMO cotton, their meat, milk, and other products are not eligible for use in a Non-GMO Project Verified product. The Non-GMO Project Standard follows animal-derived products such as milk and meat all the way back to animal feed—it’s hard work to get animal-derived products verified. Most GMOs become either automobile fuel or animal feed, so feed material is an extremely meaningful leverage point in our shared food system. Besides, your diet isn’t just what you eat—it’s everything that goes into any animal-derived foods you eat, too.
Some animal feeds contain as much as 15 percent cottonseed content. Cottonseed and cottonseed meal both contain a high fat content and can be a protein source for animals. Cottonseed hulls can also end up in animal feed as roughage, but this material has little nutritional value. GMOs aside, animals cannot have too much cotton in their diet because cotton contains gossypol; this compound can be toxic to people and animals in sufficiently large quantities. The United States Department of Agriculture recently deregulated a new type of GMO cotton in which the gene responsible for producing gossypol has been switched off. In theory, this would make the resulting cottonseed meal safe for human consumption. This specific type of cotton is not yet commercially available, but most cotton is already genetically modified.
Genetically Modified Cotton is Everywhere
Some GMO cotton crops have been genetically modified so that they tolerate the direct application of chemical herbicides such as glyphosate. These herbicide-tolerant, or HT, crops allow farmers to douse their fields and pre-treat the ground rather than applying herbicides carefully to weeds. Glyphosate use has doubled fifteen times over since the introduction of this type of GMO became available in the mid-1990s.
Other GMO cotton crops have been engineered with DNA from the naturally-occurring bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Bacillus thuringiensis can produce Cry proteins; specific types of these proteins are toxic to insects that possess the corresponding receptors to activate those proteins. Naturally produced Cry proteins are largely harmless to other organisms that do not possess these receptors. However, many people have concerns about the other ways Bt impacts the environment on a larger scale.
Read more: Three fascinating case studies on Bt crops
Bt crops can be effective in the short term, but they lead to pest resistance over time. Just as bacteria can become resistant to drugs and medications, pest populations can become resistant to Bt crops over time. This type of resistance is a function of natural selection. Pests that are not killed by consuming Bt are more likely to live long enough to reproduce and make more Bt-resistant larvae. Some research suggests that Bt resistance is speeding up over time. Once touted as a miracle panacea and a solution to economic insecurity where cotton is grown, Bt crops around the world are failing to deliver on biotech’s promises to farmers.
Pest resistance of any type presents a major concern because when one pesticide stops working, the typical solution is to use more pesticides. The pattern of requiring more and more pesticides to control a pest problem is called a pesticide treadmill, and it represents a significant problem in modern agriculture. We can’t outrun or outsmart evolution, but biotech companies keep trying!
Where is Cotton Grown?
China, India, and the United States grow the vast majority of the world’s cotton. In India, the system that produced Bt cotton has been increasingly connected to serious issues including bankruptcy and suicide among farmers. It is important to consider that approximately 65 percent of India’s cotton crop comes from farmers who rely on rainwater—irrigation is not available to everyone. Farmers in this region face socioeconomic pressures that are very different from what farmers in the United States or Canada face, and the royalty fees associated with patented GMO seeds can exacerbate these pressures. Research is showing that the more dependent Indian farmers are on rainfall, the more likely Bt cotton is to push them toward bankruptcy and the problems that go along with it.
As a scientist, I have tried to understand what is driving our small farmers to suicide. Two things are evident. One, the suicides begin with the period of globalization which allowed MNCs [Multi-national corporations] entry into India’s Seed Sector, making seeds a non-renewable “input”, to be bought every year.
Secondly, the suicides have further intensified after the introduction of GMO Bt cotton. GMOs are intrinsically linked to Intellectual Property Rights, which in turn are linked to royalty payments. Royalties are extracted from poor farmers through credit and debt…the shift to Bt cotton meant a jump of 8000 percent in the cost of seed. This is at the root of the farmers’ distress in the cotton areas of India.
The Non-GMO Project believes that we have the power to change the way our food is grown and made. We can choose not to support practices that privatize our food supply, hurt small farmers, and restrict the free flow of information. The non-GMO movement is about more than the right to know, it’s also about doing what’s right! If—like us—you find this type of GMO-based colonialism upsetting, you can refuse to buy into this system by opting out of GMO cotton. That doesn’t just mean avoiding GMO cotton textiles and home goods (choosing Organic is a great start), it means making sure the animals who produce any meat, eggs, or dairy you eat also avoid GMO feed.
We’ll leave you with Dr. Shiva’s words again:
GMOs are not a “thing,” they are a set of relationships, and it is the context created by these relationships that is driving farmers to suicide. GMOs are not a disembodied “technology” as so many pro-GMO commentators try to present. These commentators then proceed to protect this abstract construction of GMOs as disembodied technologies from the evidence of reality. In reality, what exists is a GMO complex, or nexus, that has an impact on real ecosystems and real farmers.