The International Cotton Advisory Committee says that genetically altered cotton varieties were planted on 24 percent of the world's cotton acres during 2004-05, an increase of 3 percent over the previous year.

Those acres accounted for 35 percent of world production and 31 percent of cotton trade in the international market, according to the ICAC, an organization representing 44 of the world's cotton producing countries. It said nine countries representing 60 percent of the world area have commercialized biotech cotton varieties.

The ICAC constituted an expert panel in 1999 to prepare a report on biotech cotton — in a language understandable to most people — to address questions about the benefits and risks of biotech cotton. That report was published in 2000.

Last year, ICAC formed the Second Expert Panel on Biotechnology of Cotton to update the first report and include information not covered in that report, including specifically addressing bio-safety issues and the potential benefits and challenges for biotech cotton adoption in the developing world. The Second Export Panel included members from Australia, France, Greece, Pakistan, the United States and the International Service for the Acquisition of Agra-Biotech Applications. Among the U.S. members of the panel were Phillip Wakelyn, a scientist with the National Cotton Council, and Kater Hake, an agronomist with Delta and Pine Land Co.

The panel found that while insect resistance and herbicide tolerance are the only traits currently available in biotech cottons, a broad range of other traits are under development using modern biotechnology.

Principle limitations to the easy and faster spread of biotechnology are identification of suitable genes, intellectual property rights and bio-safety regulations in various countries.

“The products of modern biotechnology are the most rigorously evaluated of any products ever introduced and rigorous assessment of the currently commercialized products (i.e., insect resistant and herbicide resistant cottons) have shown no human health risks or risks to the environment,” the report said.

The panel recommended that case-by-case assessment of new products should be undertaken in each geographical region being considered for utilization of a new biotech product. Pre-emptive resistance management strategy as a refuge crop has proved successful, and sustained use of the technology demands that resistance management strategies must be implemented according to local conditions.

A review of published literature from all countries growing biotech cottons indicates significant economic, environmental and social benefits, particularly for resource-poor small farmers in developing countries. Farmer benefits accrue through reductions in pesticide use, equal or higher yields, no impact on fiber quality and increased income, while clear environmental benefits are delivered through reduced pesticide input.

“Many countries in Asia, Africa and South America are experimenting with biotech varieties of cotton,” the report said. “The results are encouraging everywhere, but most governments are slow in deciding protocol for importing, experimenting and commercializing release of biotech products.

“The technology has tremendous potential, and countries slow in adoption are depriving their farmers of benefits already availed in numbers of countries,” it noted.

The panel made specific recommendations for the adoption of biotechnology products by developing countries:

  • Develop a centralized regulatory process that is clear, rigorous, expeditious, harmonized and science-based and that requires testing to demonstrate benefits and follow-up procedures to ensure sustainability;
  • Insure legislation is in place to protect both the germplasm and the technology;
  • Develop technical teams that can educate farmers and support the use of new technology;
  • Encourage the adoption of the best technology in varieties with demonstrated local performance; and
  • Include biotech cotton as one component of an integrated farming system supporting adoption of IPM (Integrated Pest management) or IWM (Integrated Weed management), not as a replacement or alternative technology.