10 Years of GM cotton - where to from here?

06 March, 2006

___Jeff Bidstrup, Convener, Producers’ Forum, Outlook Conference, Canberra, 2006_

The Australian cotton industry is justifiably proud of its reputation of having the highest yields in the world. Combined with this, we are amongst the top in world quality, and have an excellent reputation for marketing and delivery.

This has not come about by accident. Our growers are amongst the best in the world, and are at the forefront in technology adoption.

We have a dedicated plant breeding team at CSIRO which are generally accepted to have bred the best varieties in the world. We have an industry that works closely together, from breeding, seed production and research, to growing, ginning and marketing/export.


(Source: ICAC)

Australia is the seventh largest producer in the world, and the third largest exporter, producing around 3 million bales per annum. Nearly all the crop is exported.

Cotton has been a profitable crop, and we are at a point where it is now grown from Hillston in Southern New South Wales to Emerald in Central Queensland. Communities where cotton is now grown have been reinvigorated with economic and employment stimulus.

Where did we come from?

The modern Australian cotton industry had it’s genesis in the Namoi valley in New South Wales in the 1960’s when two Californian farming families, the Hadleys and the Kahls began growing irrigated cotton.

Cotton has been a profitable crop, and we are at a point where it is now grown from Hillston in Southern New South Wales to Emerald in Central Queensland. Communities where cotton is now grown have been reinvigorated with economic and employment stimulus.

Apart from water availability, the major threat to cotton production in Australia has been from insect pests especially the heliothis caterpillar. This pest was initially controlled with DDT until it became resistant to this insecticide. This resistance caused the much publicized and much remembered demise of the cotton industry in the Ord River region of northern West Australia. In the seventies, a new generation of insecticides, the synthetic pyrethroids (SP’s) became available, and this revolutionized cotton production and profitability.

Overuse, and a lack of understanding of insect resistance, led to the demise of SP’s, and hence a significant reduction in the usefulness of this technology. A new generation of “soft”, albeit very expensive chemicals, and an industry wide push to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) kept us in business. IPM is a system of production that works in harmony with nature, using products that preserve natural predators and intervening with hard chemicals much less, and only after considering the impact on those natural predators.

Despite improvement, our costs of insect control were rising continually. Community concerns about our heavy use of chemicals became almost unbearable in some areas. We had serious issues of environmental pollution to confront.

We stayed economically viable because our competitors in China, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan could not match our ability to use technology to rotate chemistry, institute IPM, and manage resistance. The cotton price stayed strong because these countries were unreliable producers due to pestilence, and individually many of their farmers could not continue to grow cotton.

Industry observers generally agree that there is little scope to increase the area of cotton in Australia with climate change and community pressures limiting water supply for irrigated cotton. Australian cotton yields are the highest in the world, and these are expected to increase as the relentless drive for more efficiency continues in a world awash with cotton. These record crops have been produced primarily because of the advent of genetically modified (GM), insect resistant Bt cotton, and a lack of weather disasters in recent years. Traditionally, good seasons have been associated with pestilence in many parts of the world, but this is becoming a thing of the past with Bt cotton.

The world changed in 1995

In 1995 we planted the first commercial B.t. cotton (marketed as INGARD®) in Australia.
This is cotton that has been genetically modified to contain the genes from an ubiquitous
soil bacteria which provides significant resistance to heliothis caterpillars. Following years of research, this new technology, while in its infancy, gave us the circuit breaker we so desperately needed. Australia quickly developed the varieties and systems that allowed us to maximize the value of this new technology, although we were only allowed to grow a maximum of 30 percent of our area due to resistance management protocols.

As with all new technologies, there were initial hiccups that required strong communication between technology developers, supply chain players, and growers to develop satisfactory solutions. It was generally accepted that the initial varieties didn’t perform up to expectations, and that growers and suppliers expectations were not initially met.

However, the varieties quickly improved and Ingard gave us a platform from which to build a very successful IPM system and allowed cotton to be grown in “sensitive” areas where chemical usage had been controversial.

Ingard was based on a single gene which conferred resistance against insect pests. By the time Bollgard II (GM cotton with two Bt genes) was introduced in 2004, the industry was in a mood to embrace biotechnology and dump our reliance on conventional chemistry. In the first full year around 70 percent of the crop was planted to Bollgard, and this year (05/06) the figure is 81 percent. Except in extreme circumstances, crops are generally not sprayed at all for the heliothis pest.

In the 1999-2000 season, Roundup Ready cotton was introduced. This is a herbicide resistant cotton that has revolutionized weed control. We are no longer are reliant on armies of cotton chippers with all the occupational health and safety (OH&S) issues that entails. Roundup Ready cotton is only resistant to the herbicide in its very early growth stages, and so its benefit is limited, and initially some growers damaged crops by not understanding the limitations of the technology. However, knowledge has improved and the technology provider has priced it at a level where the growers receive a fair share of the benefits. As a result, it is now widely and happily used despite its limitations. 80 percent of the total crop in Australia was Roundup Ready in 2005/6.

Current issues

Australia has not been the only beneficiary of this technology. The half hectare farmer in
China or India has exactly the same technology, often at a lower or nil cost, as we do. The technology is in the seed and the current world record production can be largely attributed to this. Australian growers are going to have to learn to adjust to lower cotton prices.

Resistance management is something to which the Australian cotton industry is totally committed. We constantly monitor and model. The rapid swing to Bollgard insect resistant crops means we have probably lost much of the capacity to manage the whole crop with conventional chemistry. This makes it paramount that resistance management of Bollgard remains number one priority for the Australian cotton industry.

Weed species shift, and possible resistance to Roundup is a lesser issue as fields are conventionally cultivated for the fallow period, and alternative chemistry is required preplant to control Roundup Ready volunteer cotton.

The industry recognizes the need to ensure that there is competition and choice in the marketplace for cottongrowers. To provide such choice, the industry works closely with a variety of local and global technology developers and suppliers which ensures diversity in research partnerships. Access to intellectual property and technology for our elite Australian varieties is critical and this will only be obtained through workable, mutually beneficial partnerships.

At this point, I should highlight how fortunate the Australian cotton industry is to have access to gene technology. We have not been hindered, to date, by the state government moratorias or bans on GM crops. We believe that such state bans could impact on our ability to bring forward new GM solutions, because while they may not specifically target cotton, they provide uncertainty and serve as a disincentive for researchers and commercial investment in this area. We call on Australian governments to implement a solution to this ridiculous situation and allow Australian farmers to access the same technologies as our global competitors.

The next five to ten years

Initially, we have in the pipeline Roundup Ready Flex, Liberty Link, and VIP cotton.

Roundup Ready Flex will be available in limited quantities for planting in 2006. This will enable season long control with glyphosate (Roundup) and will be a great leap forward in ease of weed control, and allow the introduction of exciting new farming systems.

Liberty Link (gluphosinate resistant) cotton should be available for some plantings in 2007, and this alternative herbicide tolerant cotton will alleviate the pressure put on glyphosate by continued use of Roundup Ready cotton. Alternating these technologies should give us robust weed control with little resistance risk. The products also come from different biotech companies so we should see some competition in the marketplace.

Vegetative Insecticidal Protein (VIP) is an alternative insect control gene that should become available within 5 years, and will most likely be combined with a Bt gene.

To strengthen resistance management with Bollgard cotton, VIP will provide a different mode of action.

While commercial sensitivities often delay and prevent announcements of key advances until a product is close to release, the next five-ten years presents enormous opportunities to the Australian cotton industry. This is an exciting time when we can expect continued agronomic improvement, in addition to new output traits. Anticipated developments include:

p. • Drought Tolerance and higher water use efficiency varieties is an area of frenetic activity in biotech labs around the world. Yield increases of approximately 20 percent are touted for grain crops, but cotton appears more difficult. Even a “minor” five to ten percent increase would change the world as we know it. Biotech companies recognize this trait as a “good news story” and are working expeditiously to bring it to market by 2011or later.

• Cottonseed oil modification (CSIRO) to produce healthier oils is now a reality but the issue of public acceptance has halted its production. We can expect further developments in this area.

• Improved insecticidal genes could be introduced, including Widestrike from Dow Agrosciences (cry1Ac and cry1Fa from B.thuringiensis) and Hexima Ltd has field trials of cotton expressing natural plant genes NaPI from tobacco and PotI from potato (encoding protease inhibitors) for insect control.

• More efficient nutrient use, particularly nitrogen, is already in the pipeline but some years off.

• Disease and virus resistance is being researched at many public and private institutions and major advances are expected in 5-10 years

• Fibre quality and quantity traits are being studied and again we can expect major advances in the next 10 years

• Resistance to abiotic factors such as salinity, heat, waterlogging, and cold are being studied in all crops and we can expect some of the outcomes to spill over to enhance cotton

We need to recognize that the field of plant biotechnology encompasses diverse fields with technologies and outputs far broader that just GM crop outputs. Non-GM applications of plant biotechnology can be used to improve variety selection and screening strategies in conventional breeding programs, to identify and source new variations in land races and wild relatives and to better understand the genes and proteins controlling plant responses The use of markers to track genes or groups of genes responsible for complex traits can increase the success and greatly reduce the time required for conventional breeding programs, giving greater flexibility, more precision and better varieties sooner (BRS, 2005). The Australian cotton industry will continue to embrace the benefits of this research.

Our vision

In the future, Australian cottongrowers will be growing longer, stronger, finer fibres, and more of them due to genetic manipulation, or the use of marker assisted breeding.

We will be using less water for the equivalent yield due to agronomic advances, “drought tolerance” from genetic manipulation and marker assisted breeding, and water use efficiencies on the farm.

We will be rotating our insect resistant crops to reduce the chance of resistance, and we will have the prospect of new traits for wider insect control on our doorstep.

We will be rotating our herbicide tolerant cotton to control weed resistance, and again new traits will be on our list.

Some of our competitors in countries with less robust resistance management plans and cotton monoculture may have found that resistance to insects and weeds is again a problem.

We may have modified the oil in the seed for better health or commercial uses and be growing specialty oils.

We will still have disease and virus outbreaks, but we will be in a position to react much more quickly than in the past with varieties that have resistance or tolerance traits. We will even be able to pre-empt diseases and include in our varieties disease and virus resistance from wild relatives or other plants.

Climate change will be an accepted reality, and we will be much better and more quickly able to breed to take advantage of shifts in climate patterns.

As we move further into a world where biotechnology is the dominant production system, the Australian cotton industry will still face challenges. But we will be well placed to
address issues and implement solutions to the issues such as patent rights and questions about our freedom to operate which could impact on our research and development uptake in some areas.

We will still face fierce competition in export markets, and farmers terms of trade will have reduced further due to the ease of production by our competitors. Thankfully, Australian cottongrowers will still have access to GM crops to compete globally, at a time when our grain counterparts may just be accessing the technology.

We may be growing specialty fibres that dye better, are coloured, or have properties that make them more comfortable or water or fire resistant.

Finally, our environment will be much improved. We will produce more with less- less fuel, less water, less insecticide, less herbicide, and less labour and nutrients.

Failure to embrace biotechnology will be to the detriment of the rest of Australian agriculture and the Australian economy. Gene technology, or GM crops, can coexist with other production systems. We must break the agricultural censorship so ill applied at present through the state moratoria. There is no doubt in my mind that biotechnology will play a crucial role in future production systems – for the sake of our children it must.

When history has run its course, and the time comes to reflect on the years past, the consumers of the world should be well pleased with us.