GMO cotton: good or bad?

Related to last week’s entry on organic cotton fraud, I found a video called Two days in Texas [via] which describes current cotton production practices in the United States. The video is shot in Lubbock TX, aka the “silicone valley” of cotton production. The provenance of the film, at least as it relates to commercial interests is not transparent. I do not think I would be the only person to suspect the film may have been underwritten by Bayer Crop Sciences, the producers of Fibermax GMO cotton seed.

Some of the claims from cotton farmers are quite compelling. One claims he used to plant 25 pounds of cotton seed per acre but now uses only 6 pounds. Yields are also up. Previously, 3 bales an acre was considered excellent with 1.5 bales to be average but yields are up to 4 bales an acre. Intertwined with the yield discussion was the effect of improved watering technologies, specifically sub surface drip (that looked interesting!) but it wasn’t clear how much of the yield increase was due to improved watering and equipment technologies, nor how many acres had previously been dry farmed. Speaking of equipment, ditto for the 8 row harvesters (see Field trip to a cotton gin). Cotton farming employment continues to fall; one farmer said he used to have 30 people working for him but now only has one man.

I’m left with the impression of a gross contradiction; if cotton farming is so great now, with less expenditure of resources (less pesticide, less seed, less water, less labor) then how come 90% of cotton farmers have gotten out of it since the early 1980’s? One thing is certainly yields. Increased yields have depressed the price of cotton (prices have decreased steadily relative to inflation) which can be good and/or bad since this amounts to lower cost apparel but US cotton farmers enjoy subsidies courtesy of your tax dollars.

I looked for a rebuttal to the film but could not find one. If you have a source, please sing out. For now, I hope you will read a previous entry I wrote (Roundup: The birds and bees) about pesticides and GMO cotton seed.

Related:
Field trip to a cotton gin
Roundup: The birds and bees

My cotton farming series (more popular than you’d think):
It all starts here
It all starts here 2
It all starts here 3
It all starts here 4
It all starts here 5
It all starts here 6
It all starts here 7
It all starts here 8
It all starts here 9
It all stops here 1

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10 comments

  1. Brina says:

    Interesting film–The farm they are talking about are pretty large, 2000 & 4000 & 6000 acres. And the film does make a case for genetically modified, USA grown cotton, at the very least because it supports USA farmers and means they don’t have to use pesticides. What’s not to like?

    My mother grew up on a farm. They had about 25 acres but maybe 4 acres were planted in any one crop. So the whole family, plus some hired folks would be needed to pick cotton or tobacco or whatever by hand. Such a difference between the 2 full time people needed say for the 1700 acres of the female farmer on the film. Nice that they showed a female farmer–too bad they didn’t show more ethnic diversity–probably because those folks are more likely to have smaller farms and/or be left out of the loop of government support etc. (http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/news/2252032/posts) & (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/28/AR2009092803838.html)

    Hand picking cotton is really hard work, so I am not sure that mechanization is a totally bad thing. Although, as your earlier story about cotton growing shows that mechanical harvesters leave a lot of cotton in the field.

    I think one of the issues with both GM and pesticides is that if you put it on your field and I don’t–I grow organic or transitional or whatever, sooner or latter traces of GM or pesticides are going to end up in my field. While you can’t say the reverse–traces of whatever I am not doing are not going to end up in your field. Which again make this a matter of choice–yes folks should have the right to choose–but not if your choices effect my choices to the point that they negate my choices. (You here used generically)

  2. Vesta says:

    “yes folks should have the right to choose–but not if your choices effect my choices to the point that they negate my choices”

    And for me, this is a HUGE issue in the GMO debate. Once GMO crops are so prevalent (as with soy and corn), pollination leads to those genes jumping fences and removing the choices of farmers to grow traditional crops. I mean, think about Latin America, the birth place of corn. With GMO corn being grown there, at some point the original gene pool will be compromised. (And then Monsanto can sue anyone it likes for patent infringement.) As a former biologist, this scares the bejeesus out of me. It makes the debate about whether GMO is a good thing or not completely moot. We don’t get the choice to say no. And we aren’t informed on our food labels when GMO foods are used, so we can’t even choose not to eat them. I’m disgusted by the entire course of this (impotent) “debate”.

  3. Kathleen says:

    And the film does make a case for genetically modified, USA grown cotton, at the very least because it supports USA farmers and means they don’t have to use pesticides. What’s not to like?

    Plenty.

    The film is but a thinly veiled commercial for Fibermax. There’s plenty they’re not saying. On one hand the film says the GMO seeds are bred so the plants will release an enzyme that boll weevils find unpalatable. However, the film does not mention these seeds are also “Round-Up Ready”, meaning the cotton is genetically modified to be impervious to herbicides (Round Up). Round Up is having devastating consequences in the ecosystem.

    Round Up run off from fields ends up in streams. Scientists have discovered that the inert (read purportedly harmless) ingredients in Round Up are clogging the olfactory glands of fish. They can’t smell to spawn, hunt or avoid predators. And that’s not all. Bird populations have decreased over 67% across the US with but a cursory outcry from the usual suspects but disregarded by everyone else. Again, a link to Round Up is suspected. And then there’s bees. Hive collapses have become endemic. If the bees die, we are soon to follow if food crops can’t be pollinated. All of this is in my previous entry Round Up: Birds and Bees -third time I’m linking to it…. there’s plenty not to like.

  4. Brina says:

    Kathleen said
    “Plenty.”

    Sorry, I was being sarcastic–tongue in cheek–I thought that would be made clear by the rest of my post. Yes the film is obvious advertainment or an infomercial or whatever they call these things now.

  5. Kathleen says:

    Conveniently enough, today’s Living on Earth (via NPR) has a story on atrazine. Transcript is available if you don’t want to play the audio.

    Doris: blends are common to strengthen fibers etc. Even naturally grown colored cotton is blended with regular cotton for fiber integrity (otherwise, thread breaks repeatedly during weaving on modern looms). I agree it’s confusing but it’s akin to McDonalds claiming their burgers are 100% beef when everyone knows cereals and who knows what else are also in there. They can make this claim because the meat is 100% beef as opposed to horse or pork etc.

  6. Kathleen: This is a great conversation about the merits of GMO versus organic cotton. As you mention in your original blog entry the video you discuss was originally made available via my blog (rantoshak.blogspot.com). Needless to say, there’s been a lot of discussion generated on the blogosphere and on Twitter concerning not only my blog comments but also on Andrew Olah’s video. In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I am a consultant for Fibermax Cotton.

    So that the record is set straight, Andrew did the video without any commercial support from Fibermax. However, it may have appeared that it was a thinly veiled ad for Fibermax, though that was inadvertent. Fibermax is the largest commercially grown variety of cotton in the US today so to not mention Fibermax would have ignored a significant reality in the market place today.

    Nevertheless, the point of his video was to try to establish some facts regarding how cotton is grown and whether sustainable production — that is product that takes into account best business practices — is a viable means of production. I think he has convincing made his case that, yes, it is. However, this also begs the question whether organic cotton production is really viable or not. From a business perspective it is hard to see how true, verifiable organic production can ever make it. Yet, the desire to have organic or green production should and will remain everyone’s goal in the cotton production, let alone the broader textile supply chain.

    My point is that the desire for green products is a worthwhile objective; it’s just that the market is quite limited in it’s ability to produce true organic cotton, but sustainable cotton production is available today and is supported by best business practices which results in the use of less water, pesticides and a smaller carbon footprint.

    If you or anyone else would like to discuss this further, please feel free to contact me rantoshak@fcstone.com.

    Bob Antoshak
    FCStone

    PS. You have a terrific blog!

  7. Kathleen says:

    Hi Robert, I’m very flattered you came by. I’m impressed with your site and follow your tweets. My partner was also impressed with the caliber of your tweets (one of the very few times I could say “I told you so”).

    ALL: Bob’s blog is here; he’s one of the very few people writing about the textile industry today. His twitter is http://twitter.com/RAntoshak

  8. Hi Kathleen. You have a great website and your readers are fortunate to be able to contribute to your blog! You offer a fresh perspective on fashion and textiles. I have recommended your site to my readers of my blog and on Twitter.

    Best Regards,

    Bob

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