Biotechnology and cotton

In Australia

  • Biotechnology refers to the use of cotton varieties with transgenic or genetically modified (GM) traits
  • Most of the yield gains in Australia are attributed to plant breeding, exploiting genetic variation (also known as seed technology) and genotype responses to modern management
  • The use of biotechnology in cotton has made a significant contribution in the dramatic reduction in insecticides applied to Australian cotton crops
  • Australian cotton growers have reduced their insecticide use by 89% over the last decade, with some crops not sprayed for insects at all
  • Other environmental, social and economic benefits of biotechnology in cotton are increased populations of beneficial insects and wildlife in cotton fields, reduced pesticide run-off, improved farm worker and neighbour safety, more time for farmers to spend with families, a decrease in labour and fuel usage, improved soil quality, reduced production costs, increased yield, reduced risks and further opportunities to grow cotton in areas of high pest infestation
  • There are financial rewards for cotton farmers using biotechnology. “Since 2010 the total farm income gain derived by Australian cotton farmers from using this technology has been $395 million, an average of about $180 per hectare” (source: National Press Club Address 2012, Graham Brookes, Director of PG Economics UK)
  • Australia, Mexico and the USA were the first countries to commercialise biotech cotton in 1996/97 (source: ICAC, 2015), starting in 1996 with Ingard®.
  • Bollgard II® was introduced to Australia in 2004. The industry is currently working towards the introduction of Bollgard III®
  • Today, more than 99% of planted cotton in Australia uses biotechnology
  • Biotech cotton area has increased to over 60% of the world cotton area in 2010 (source: ICAC, 2015)
  • Cotton incorporating transgenic traits has a sound track record of safe and successful use in Australia, with no adverse incident recorded in over 15 years of growing these varieties
  • Bollgard II®, used widely in Australia, contains two genes from the naturally occurring soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) and gives the plant an in-built tolerance to the Helicoverpa caterpillar.  When the caterpillar ingests a small part of the cotton plant, the Bt protein disrupts the caterpillar’s digestive system and it dies
  • Bt is a naturally occurring soil organism that produces insecticidal proteins and Bt sprays have been safely used for over 50 years in agriculture
  • The cotton industry uses three types of transgenic cotton:  Bollgard II ® (with two different genes from the naturally occurring soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt)) and Roundup Ready Flex® (with genes from the soil bacterium called Agrobacterium tumefaciens) and Liberty Link® (with genes from the soil microorganism Streptomyces hygroscopicus)
  • Herbicide tolerant cotton (Roundup Ready Flex® and Liberty Link®) can reduce the amount of soil cultivation and herbicide required on cotton crops to control weeds and facilitates healthier soils through less soil disruption and reductions in residual herbicides
  • In Australia, each genetic trait is individually assessed on a case by case basis by the Office of Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR), Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA)
  • Over the last decade new cotton varieties released have contained new features such as improved fibre quality, disease resistance, maturity and regional adaptability – research is being undertaken to develop varieties that require less water and/or are drought tolerant
  • The use of transgenic cotton is a key component of grower’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies that use a combination of natural controls and pest-specific chemistry to further reduce pesticide use
  • Cottonseed oil doesn’t require GM food labelling.  This is because when cottonseed is crushed to make oil, the oil is separated from the Bt and other transgenic proteins. Cottonseed oil from a transgenic cotton plant variety contains no genetically modified material

Globally

  • Modern technology has enabled increased efficiency in cotton production not only in Australia, but around the world. 50% more cotton is produced worldwide today on the same amount of land as compared to 40 some years ago (source: Cotton Inc., 2014)

The following findings are from the GM Crops & Food: Biotechnology in Agriculture and the Food Chain report by PG Economics Ltd, UK, 2014: 

  • 18.2 million tonnes of additional crop production worldwide arose from positive yield effects of genetically modified cotton between 1996 and 2013
  • At the global level, genetic modified technology has had a significant positive impact on farm income, with in 2012, the direct global farm income benefit being USD $18.8 billion. This is equivalent to having added 6% to the value of global production of the four main crops of soybeans, maize, canola, and cotton. Since 1996, farm incomes have increased by USD $116.6 billion
  • GM insect-resistant traits used in cotton have accounted for 99.3% of additional cotton production. Positive yield impacts from the use of this technology have occurred in all user countries (except for genetically modified insect resistant cotton in Australia where the levels of Heliothis sp. (boll and bud worm pests) pest control previously obtained with intensive insecticide use were very good; the main benefit and reason for adoption of this technology in Australia has arisen from significant cost savings and the associated environmental gains from reduced insecticide use) when compared with average yields derived from crops using conventional technology (such as application of insecticides and seed treatments)
  • The average yield impact across the total area planted to these traits between 1996 and 2012 is +16.1% for cotton