Cotton is one of Australia's biggest exports, however, there has been growing concern over whether genetically modified cotton, such as Bollgard II should be allowed to grow in Australia. In response to the cotton industry's heavy dependence on pesticides; genetically modified (GM) or transgenic cotton has been engineered to manage one of the main cotton pests, helicoverpa. This GM cotton has the ability to produce its own insecticide, and thus reduce the amount of bought pesticides used by growers. Supporters of GM cotton claim that this reduction of pesticide use is both beneficial to the environment and economy, as this would produce greater yields and better quality yields. However, those opposed to GM cotton believe that if Australia (which is currently relatively GM-free) continues to produce GM cotton, then resistance could develop in helicoverpa (towards the insecticide produced by Bollgard II cotton) and this would cost the Australian economy millions in the long term.
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Genetic modification is a modern breeding technique in which a gene or genes from one organism are inserted into another organism to give the recipient organism a desired characteristic (CSIRO 2008). In the case of Bollgard II, genetic modification involves the transfer of genes using the soil microbe, agrobacterium which has a natural tendency to transfer its own genes into cells that it infects. Bollgard II's insecticide characteristic is due to the presence of the genes Cry2ab and Cry1ab (owned by biotechnology company Monsanto), which in an ordinary cotton cell, are expressed as proteins toxic to insects (Thompson, 2006).
The first step in the production of Bollgard II involves sourcing the Cry2ab and Cry1ab genes from the bacterium bacillus thuringiensis (Colorado State University 2010). The two genes are then inserted into the agrobacterium plasmid using restriction enzymes (CSIRO 2006). Once completed, the modified agrobacterium will be allowed to infect a host cell (in this instance, an ordinary cotton cell), where the Cry2ab and Cry1ab genes are transferred into the host cell (Larkin 1994). The result is the production of several transgenic cotton cells, which when allowed to grow in a tissue culture, will eventually grow into an fully functional GM cotton plant.
One of the primary claims by Monsanto, on the release of their Bollgard II cotton variety was that pesticide use would be reduced. This has proved to be true through various studies, which have shown that pesticide use has been reduced by up to 85% in Bollgard II cotton compared to conventional cotton (Cotton Australia 2008). This reduction in pesticide use is a good result for the environment as pesticides have been known to pollute waterways and have devastating effects on local marine life (Advameg 2010). Cotton growers would also benefit as it would mean less ongoing costs on the purchasing and spraying of the pesticides. In addition, it has been documented in several undeveloped areas of the world where methyl parathion poisioning has occurred due to inadequate pesticide protection (PAN North America 2008).
The primary concern associated with GM cotton is that resistance to the Cry1ab Cry2ab genes may develop in pests and have devastating effects on farmers and the economy. As illustrated in India several years ago, resistance in the pest pink bollworm (another one of cottons major pests) to the Monsanto's original Ingard variety cotton was witnessed. This led to decreases in cotton yield by 8-10% and an increase in pesticide use by 33% (Western Gazette Series 2010). Most notably, it has been reported that several farmers have begun to witness a build up in the bollworm's resistance to the Bollgard II cotton variety.
To delay and prolong resistance in Bollgard II, areas of non-GM crops have to be planted (also known as refuges) so that populations on non-resistant pests are able to accumulate. By accumulating a large population of non-resistant pests, the effect of resistant pests can be diluted, and in essence delay the onset of resistance to Bollgard II CSIRO (2006). It should also be noted that because the Bollgard II variety uses two genes, pests must develop resistance to both genes for Bollgard II to become obsolete.
Whilst the density of overall GM products available in Australia is quite low, the level of GM cotton is quite high, making it an integral part of the Australian economy. Cotton Australia (2008) states that over 95% of cotton growers planted some form of GM cotton in the 2007/08 period. This statistic should be of concern to organic cotton growers who make up the remaining 5% of Australian cotton growers as cross contamination can occur. Cross contamination could occur through the spread of pollen and seeds that are carried from one area to another through the wind (State Government of Victoria, 2010). This could be problematic as organic cotton could soon contain traces of GM cotton, and the label "organic cotton" may no longer exist.
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Moreover, with the increasing use of GM cotton by farmers, there have been great concerns over the monopolization of the cotton industry. It has been shown in many countries around the world that once widespread production of GM crops begins, it is difficult to stop. Morris (2007) highlights Canada as a prime example, where GM products now account for almost 80% of all products produced. This should especially be of concern to Australia because GM cotton is so prominent in the country. As a consequence, competition between cotton growers decreases, and large multinational biotechnology companies are further able to strengthen their hold on the agriculture industry (as companies that own patents to these genes are able to freely increase prices to those now dependent on GM cotton).
Whilst the introduction of Bollgard II has the potential to be of great benefit, problems in relation to cross-contamination are still present, and thus pose a risk to organic growers of cotton in Australia. The benefits of reduced pesticide use as significant as they are, may not be enough to outweigh the potential consequences of the monopolization, cross-contamination and resistance to the Cry1ab and Cry2ab genes. In order to overcome these problems, further research needs to be conducted, particularly into resistance being developed in pests, as these issues are simply too important ignore given the importance of the Australia cotton industry.