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Contamination Threatens Organic Cotton Availability

Certified organic cotton production accounts for just shy of 1 percent of global cotton production and contamination is hurting the already slim pickings.

In a seed availability study for cotton that isn’t genetically modified (GM), sustainability-focused nonprofit Textile Exchange found that 50 percent of respondents from across the global cotton value chain are experiencing contamination problems with GM cotton.

There are three types of cotton seed available on the market: organic (non-GM, untreated), conventional (treated with chemicals or untreated) and GM (pest resistant and/or herbicide tolerant).

By 2013, 74 percent of the conventional cotton area (23.9 million hectares) was cultivated with GM cotton in 15 countries on five continents, including China, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, The U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, South Africa and Burkina Faso.

“Often it is thought that contamination with GM cotton is caused by cross-pollination. However, there are more important sources of contamination to look into. Flowers of many cotton varieties are self-fertile and self-pollinating,” the report noted. “More probable is the contamination at the ginner’s site and that seeds planted by farmers are GM seeds.”

GM seeds are planted unintentionally for two main reasons: farmers either buy cheap seeds from ginners that don’t take care to separate organic, conventional and GM seeds, or they need to fill gaps in their fields and buy anything available, and in areas where GM cotton is predominant, that can end up being mostly GM seed.

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“The ginner plays an important role in keeping organic cotton but also conventional cotton seed free from GM seed,” the report explained. “In some countries, they are legally required to do so. In other countries the law does not prescribe this. Enforcement of the law is a separate issue.”

Roughly 80 percent of the survey’s 90 respondents said organic cotton is difficult to access, and in countries where GM cotton is predominant—the U.S., India, China and Burkina Faso, according to Textile Exchange—nearly 90 percent said it can at times be “almost impossible” to access organic cotton seed. And getting the organic stuff has even proved trying in countries that don’t grow GM cotton.

“Not only organic cotton seed availability is at stake, also the efficiency and profitability in organic cotton value chain needs to be improved,” according to the report.

Cotton is under pressure from more profitable and easier to grow crops like soybean, but roughly 80 percent of the cotton traders surveyed still said they expect organic cotton area to increase even in the face of a potentially declining overall cotton acreage.

Going forward, Textile Exchange said developing seed programs, like non-GM seed multiplication, will be key to boosting increased organic cotton availability.

Regional workshops should also be initiated—namely in India, China and West Africa where resolving organic cotton availability is most urgently needed—to specify organic cotton requirements and identify steps forward, and seed breeding programs should be put in place to better adapt cotton varieties to organic and low-input growing conditions.

“Without a breeding program, it will be difficult to guarantee the availability of better-adapted, good GM-free varieties in the future,” the report noted. “As growing conditions change, the continuous development of well-adapted varieties is crucial.”