What is GM (genetically modified) cotton (in layman’s terms)?

Contrary to what one might expect, GM cotton plants do not produce ‘super’ cotton bolls of extraordinary size or physical strength. In fact, one can only distinguish between conventional and GM fibre by using the most sophisticated scientific technology; the fibres are for all practical purposes identical.

So if there is no visible difference in the fibre, why do most farmers around the world pay a premium to use these biotechnology seeds? The answer is found in the two key categories of the GM cotton plant. One large class of GM cotton plants has a gene implanted that creates Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a toxin found in nature which provides ‘built-in’ protection from certain insect categories. Cotton is a crop which is particularly vulnerable to pests if no protection methodology is employed. Thus, the attraction of a GM ‘trait’ which is harmful to certain classes of insects has obvious appeal to some farmers (though organic and conventional cotton growers employ alternative Integrated Pest Management techniques to achieve the same pest control objective as GM cotton).

The other large class of biotechnology GM seed is referred to as HT cotton. In this version, the plant contains a trait that makes it tolerant to a range of commonly used herbicides, i.e. farmers may use ‘weed killer’ without harming the cotton plant.

BT and HT traits may be ‘stacked’ in a plant (both present), or the seed may be sold with only one trait present, depending on the local context and needs.

It is important to note that seed technology is never a silver bullet solution to a problem. As stated above, BT cotton is only harmful to certain categories of insects. GM farmers must be trained in other techniques to manage the remaining pest threat.  Moreover, GM technologies will fail over time due to insects or weeds developing resistance to the BT toxin or herbicides if farmers are not trained in ‘resistance management’ strategies. The Better Cotton methodology incorporates these vital training programs (for all categories of farmers – GM, conventional and organic).