WHAT ARE THE CONCERNS?
Biodiversity in cotton is an important indicator of sustainability due to many factors, not least geographical suitability and climate change. There are about 500 known varieties of cotton which have evolved to suit geographical conditions etc; and include many intriguing characteristics and traits such as ‘colored’ cotton, extremely long and fine stapled cotton, and native indigenous or ‘wild’ cotton.
GENETIC MODIFICATION A THREAT TO BIODIVERSITY
Over the years commercial cotton has become increasingly homogenised, and research and development (R&D) has focussed on performance-related improvements, such as yield, fiber quality, and speed of maturation. These days, the major seed companies pour their research dollars into genetic modification (GM). As a result the cotton seed on the market is increasingly transgenic (genetically modified). Over 90 percent of cotton grown in India, South Africa and the USA is genetically modified (GMO) (note: GM is also banned from use in a number of countries including a number of well established organic cotton producing countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Peru).
The control of cotton seed development and distribution by a small number of multinational companies, often government backed, is potentially impacting the biodiversity of the world's cotton. It also threatens the survival of rare breeds, and reduces seed sovereignty (ownership rights and the option to save seeds for own use) for cotton growers.
Chemically-treated or GM seeds cannot be used in organic agriculture (or in Fair Trade Certified). Obtaining non-GM cotton seed (in countries where GM has been introduced) is becoming increasingly difficult for organic and Fair Trade cotton farmers and is now considered a key limitation to growth.The risk of contamination of organic crops by GM cotton is also of great concern.
Non-GM seed scarcity is also an issue for conventional cotton growers wishing to convert to organic, grow under 'low input' conditions, or simply use an alternative.
WHO’S DOING WHAT?
There are a number of organisations and companies around the world supporting the availability and viability of non-GM cotton seed supply, species diversification and organic cotton research.
Collaborative work is now underway in India; between leading producer groups, academics, companies, and NGOs. At a recent workshop organised by FiBL (the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, Switzerland), bioRe India, and the University of Agricultural Sciences:‘the Dharwad Declaration’ was signed by over 20 key collaborators, including Textile Exchange.
Texas AgriLife Research
In terms of seed breeding Texas AgriLife Research, Lubbock, TX, USA (AgLife) are looking at traits of non-GM seed. Dr. Jane Dever, Seed Breeder at AgriLife writes us the following report:
“Grand plans for a clean planet and healthy lifestyle usually start with the seed of an idea; dynamic organic agricultural systems literally start with a seed. Domestication of cotton, Gossypium species, results in a narrow genetic range in existing varieties that complement conventional, large-scale production. Much of what is available for planting seed in the USA has been converted to transgenic varieties with the addition of biotechnology traits through recombinant DNA.
Large collections of wild species and ancestral lines within cultivated species are available in cotton, but their rich allelic (genetic) diversity is rarely exploited for commercial planting seed. Mining existing genetic variation in cotton for natural traits important to organic cotton production is a major objective of my (Dr. Jane Dever’s) classical cotton breeding program at Texas AgriLife Research in Lubbock, USA. In collaboration with Dr. Megha Parajulee, cotton entomologist; Mark Arnold, entomology research associate; and David Kerns, cotton extension entomologist, a breeding program specifically for organic cotton production has been underway since September 2010.
Goals and objectives of the program were developed with the input of the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative, and field trials will be conducted on the organic farms of cooperative members. A few existing breeding lines will be evaluated during the growing season of 2011, while segregating populations specifically for insect (thrips) tolerance will be ready for potential variety selection in 2012.
Organic cotton farmers in Texas have established excellent production methods that address soil fertility and health as well as disease avoidance. The cotton breeding program expects to address some additional production constraints starting with insect tolerance through natural host plant resistance; plant architecture to improve weed competition and harvest index; and improved fiber processing quality. Ideas from farmers and stewardship of our natural genetic resources work together for seeds of the future.
Non-GM cotton seed availability in India is now critical. India is the largest producer of organic cotton in the World, but the availability of good quality non Bt. seeds is a major challenge. There is minimal interest from large professional companies, and seed companies are mostly producing Bt. seeds.
Organic integrity is essential to the success and growth of organic cotton, and obtaining non Bt. and uncontaminated seeds, making sure they are not mixed with Bt. seeds, is an essential first step.”
Child Labour Free Seed Project
The Child Labour Free Seed Project AOFG (Agriculture and Organic Farming Group) India is a network of grass root level farmers organizations and farmer limited companies. AOFG India organic and fair trade cotton is one of the projects supported by AOFG India and is being implemented in the poorest districts of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. As part of the organic and fair trade cotton program the Child Labor Free project was initiated two years ago. It is supported by Pi Foundation - a charity set up by Pants to Poverty to develop social businesses in textile value chains.
All the seed producers are women farmers, who are members of AOFG organic cotton producer’s organizations. These women farmers are small holders and belong to scheduled castes and tribes.
The goal of the project is to eradicate child labour in cotton seed production and to produce hybrid, organic and non-Bt (non-genetically modified) cotton seed. It plans to do this by piloting and showcasing to other seed industries that cotton seed can be produced without child labour and to raise awareness among small and marginal farmers of children’s and women’s rights. The project also aims to provide AOFG organic cotton farmers with organic cotton seed at an affordable price whilst also generating income for the farmer organizations involved.
The Child Labour Free (CLF) seed project is in its early stages. Within another two to three years the project aims to supply organic, Hybrid and non-GMO seed to all AOFG India organic cotton growers.
C&A and CottonConnect
C&A and CottonConnect are developing a source of organic cotton seeds for farmers in India (Cotton Connect). The international clothing retailer, C&A, started using certified organic cotton in 2006, and since then has grown from 2.5 million pieces to 26 million pieces in 2010, making it the biggest retail buyer globally. As C&A continues to scale up the use of organic cotton in their products, the long term availability of good quality organic seeds is vital to their future success.
C&A are seeing that part of the solution is to create the source of good quality organic seeds and this led to them working with CottonConnect, a pioneering company with a social purpose, that delivers business benefits to retailers and brands by creating more sustainable cotton supply chains.
C&A, working with CottonConnect, has co-invested with two large reputed organic farm groups, EcoFarms and Pratibha, Vasudha Organic in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in India, to develop a three year organic cotton seed programme.
The seed programme uses organic breeder seeds, which are converted to foundation seed and then to commercial seeds. This programme is currently in the early stages and more information will be available as results are collated and analysed.
Philip Chamberlain, Head of Sustainable Business Development at C&A, said “Organic cotton is key to our commitment to supporting sustainable agriculture, and we felt it important to support our supply chain partners with the availability of good quality organic seed, ultimately benefiting the organic cotton community at large.”
International Trade Centre: Types of cotton http://www.cottonguide.org/chapter-5/types-of-cotton
AgLife (Article by Jane Dever): http://lubbock.tamu.edu
CottonConnect (Article by Rosanne Grey, CEO): http://www.cottonconnect.org
The Child Labour Free Seed Project, India (Article by Arun Ambatipudi): http://aofgindia.com/AOFG/Projects.htm
Frison et al. Agricultural Biodiversity Is Essential for a Sustainable Improvement in Food and Nutrition Security, Sustainability, 2011, Issue 3, 238-253 http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/3/1/238/pdf