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ISIS Report 03/02/05

Australia Adopts GM Cotton but is it Wise?

The moratorium on GM canola holds but Bt cotton slips through.
Sam Burcher

Sources for this report are available in the ISIS members site. Full details here

Monsanto's single and double gene cotton

Bt ( bacillus thuringiensis ) cotton has been grown in Australia since 1996. Varieties have either one or two genetically modified inserts that provide separate proteins to kill off pests (see “GM cotton that people forgot”, this series). The first to be planted was Monsanto's Ingard, with one gene, which was restricted to 30% of the total acreage under cotton, and confined to the cooler climes of Queensland and New South Wales. But after six seasons of growing Ingard, the insects showed early signs of tolerance to Bt, and Ingard had to be withdrawn.

A second strain Bollgard II, with an additional protein to help improve insect control, has replaced the single gene variety. Applications have been granted to expand GM cotton production to parts of the country where it was previously prohibited because of concerns of cross-contamination with native cotton species.

Both Ingard and Bollgard contain the Bt toxin Cry1Ac construct 531. Studies have proved that this unpredictable gene expresses itself randomly in different part of the plant and at different levels throughout a season. For example, terminal leaves express more endotoxins than flowers and expression levels can decline as a plant ages. Reports of Ingard's performance as being insect resistant have been described as “variable” and in areas where insect pressure is intense as “very disappointing.” This correlates with findings by ISIS. See (More on Bt Resistance, http://www.i-sis.org.uk/MoreBtresistance.php )

Monsanto claims that the current 30% cap on GM cotton could be lifted to as much as 80% of total acreage in 2004/5 by the expansion plans. Bollgard II has already been approved in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales and awaits approval in northern Australia where no cotton is grown at present.

Industry claims that the northern Australian cotton may not need any chemical sprays. But this is refuted by extensive experience that shows supplemental insecticides such as organophosphates have been used in a number of GM cotton fields to control Bt resistant Helicoverpa caterpillar larvae.

GM cotton fails to improve yields and decreases profits

Julie Newman from the Network of Concerned Farmers ( www.non-gm-farmers.com ) says, “The misleading propaganda involved with promoting GM is nothing short of appalling. Australian farmers are told GM has a far superior yield when there is no evidence and no reason to presume this. We are told that there will be a reduction in costs when the little information available reveals a significant increase in costs to all farmers. We are told that there is no market risk when there is evidence that there is significant market risk for a range of our products. Again, the GM industry has been launching a concerted effort to discredit any alternative voice and quashing any adverse reports while refusing to submit the data required to support their claims.”

In 2001 /2, GM cotton was grown on165 000 hectares in Australia, the third largest exporter of cotton after the US and China, with an annual $1.7 billion accruing from the crop . Some 90% of Australia's cotton is exported to Malaysia each year. Australian farmers who adopted GM cotton have seen yields remain constant at 7-8tonnes/ha, while average operating profits fell from around $155 in 1995 to $60 in 2001 . That is because the price for cotton plummeted by almost 40% during the same period. A further loss for Australian cotton farmers is a $155/ha “technology fee” that ha s to be paid to Monsanto. In the US and China, cotton farmers receive up to one third to one half of the returns from government subsidies, but Australian farmers do not.

Monsanto has aggressively pushed GM cotton worldwide. In 1998 , 41 000 hectares were grown in Mexico, and 12 000 hectares grown in South Africa. Farmers in West Africa are being encouraged to use a combination of GM cottonseeds for planting initial crops, but it is essential that these poor farmers are able to keep seeds for subsequent sowing. As Monsanto insists on a very strict growing regime, farmers in Africa may be tempted to use easily available, old and extremely toxic insecticides if Bt fails. Monsanto also markets glyphosate resistant Round Up Ready cotton to manage weeds by overspraying the whole crop with Roundup herbicide. Monsanto claims that demands for Roundup cotton by growers increased by 40 % and is sown on 1.5 million hectares. The industry backed International Service for the Acquisition of Agrobiotechnology Applications (ISAAA) figures state a combined total of 7.5 million hectares of Bt resistant and Bt/ herbicide tolerant cotton is grown across the world, but GM crops are still only 1.3% of global agriculture area (see “Life after the genetic engineering nightmare”, ISP Briefing to European Parliament http://www.i-sis.org.uk/isp/LifeAfterGE.php ).

Roundup Ready disturbs the food web

Research reports from around the world strongly suggest a clear link between Roundup Ready and soil-borne pathogens such as fusarium (a fungus that causes head blight in wheat crops and colon iz es the roots of soya crops ) that produce toxins harmful to human and animal health. (See “Roundup Ready Sudden Death Syndrome” ISIS report www.i-sis.org.uk/RRSD.php ).

In a recent letter to Melbourne's Weekly Times , Bob Phelps the executive director of GeneEthics Network Australia revealed that fusarium is now spreading quickly through Austr alia's non-fusarium resistant GM cotton areas, according to the New South Wales Agriculture Department. Roundup disturbs the soil food web so fusarium proliferates while beneficial microbes are lost. Weeds that tolerate Roundup, and GM cotton volunteers that result from management of new varieties will also be managed with chemical cocktails. The major concern is that if 80% of the cotton crop is to be given over to Bollgard II, then target insects will soon adapt as they will be exposed to large and continuous doses of toxins, and the surviving pests will be super-resistant .

Mr Phelps said, “Other (GM) crops with new traits being field tested in many places are at least ten years away from commercial reality, and most will fail”. Of the double gene Bt and Roundup Ready cotton he concluded that, “Both traits add more chemicals to our environment and our food.”

GM cotton in household products

Cottonseeds are crushed and the resulting oil ends up as unlabelled “vegetable oil”. In particular, it is often used in deep fat fryers for fish and chips and other fast foods restaurants, explains Dr Judy Carmen, director of the Institute of Health and Environmental Research. The linters (short filled fibres attached to the cottonseeds) from GM cotton find their way into household products as diverse as ice cream, sausage skins and toothpaste . Lint is also used in medical supplies such as bandages and wound dressings as well as in tampons and clothing.

Oil and linters made from GM cotton are not labelled in food in Australia as they are deemed to contain no DNA or protein, a presumption not based on empirical data.

Government reveals GM canola test sites

Some Australian states had concerns about GM canola because of potential weediness, outcrossing with native species, contamination of cereal crops and insufficient health and environmental research (See “Defiant Australian states ban GM canola”, SIS 19). Under Australian law, they were only able to impose a moratorium on commercially growing it for economic or marketing reasons. Recent investigations by the Network of Concerned Farmers disclosed the position of covert GM canola “trial sites ” (see “Secret trials in “GM-free Australia”, SiS 24). The Network took aerial photographs, informed local farmers of the sites and provided them with draft letters asking Bayer CropScience to cover any legal liability for any GM contamination of their fields. Many protestors are unhappy about the expansion of GM cotton, which poses health, environmental and economic risks, and are alarmed at the attitude of the federal government back -pedalling on the issue of GM , effectively saying that the moratorium was meant only for food crops.

One reason for expanding GM cotton zones to the north is because water for irrigation is becoming more expensive and scarce in the eastern states, while the north has a monsoon type climate. Cotton growers in the north of Western Australia hope to plunder the waters of the Fitzroy River and direct it to proposed cotton fields in the Kimberley. A report detailing plans to almost double the size of the stage two River Ord Irrigation Area have been delayed until after the Western Australian state election, as the planting of GM cotton fields are expected to be recommended, which would upset Greens and Aboriginals.

Stand firm against GM cotton

The Northern Territory government opposes commercial GM cotton because it is “damaging to the reputation of the Territory” for good, unadulterated food. Federal Government-approved trials of 18 hectares of Bollgard cotton were harvested this summer, but the green light for commercial release was not given. Primary Industry Minister Kon Vatskalis stands by his decision not to support the introduction of cotton farming anywhere in the Territory.

The GM cotton industry claims that it can offer 5 000 jobs to the local Aboriginal population, who spurned the idea in the Kimberley. For the Yawuru people, it is a question of priorities. They put the country, the land and water before money. Water thirsty cotton would require up to 1600 gigalitres of water annually and dry out the wetlands and waterholes that intrinsically shape the region. Besides, the locals claim their Indigenous land rights to preserve the Kimberley for future generations to forage hunt and maintain their culture.

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