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Farmers catchin' on to the problems with biotech cotton

(January 18, 2001 – Cropchoice news) -- Small-scale, family cotton farmers are concerned. In the South and in California, many growers face the difficult task of finding non-genetically engineered seeds. This opposition to biotech forms part of the work that farmers, agricultural organizations and businesses are doing to grow cotton in a sustainable manner.

The situation is especially grim in Mississippi, Arkansas, and southern Missouri. Delta and Pine Land seeds account for 84 percent of the cotton varieties, and Stoneville controls the other 16 percent, says Jim Worstell, Ph.D., quoting from U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. Of that seed, more than 99 percent is genetically modified.

"In some regions, no non-GMO seed is offered for sale," he says. "Farmers in our region recognize the poorer seed quality and even lower yields of GMO varieties, but they have been convinced by Monsanto advertising that they have to have the GMO genes."

Worstell coordinates the Delta Enterprise Network, an organization of entrepreneurs and farmers promoting sustainable agriculture. The farmers participating in the Network cultivate cotton on 20,000 acres.

More than 1,000 miles away, California cotton farmers are also encountering limits on the availability of conventional seeds, says Will Allen of the Sustainable Cotton Project. The organization counsels more than 40 growers on 30,000 acres in biological integrated pest management and organic growing techniques.

The California Seed Planting District long had been the only place where growers could buy seeds, he says. Farmers bought and planted, for the most part, high quality, long staple, non-genetically modified varieties that mature in 180 days. Because of the quality, the farmers typically received 10 cents more per pound of cotton (average yield of 2.3 per bales per acre) than their counterparts in the South (average yield of fewer than 2 bales).

Then, two years ago, after the El Nino weather pattern brought more rain to California, the Planting District's monopoly ended. The big growers in the state – 220 folks who farm 60 percent of the acreage – demanded a permit to grow shorter season varieties. Delta and Pine Land obliged by offering seeds from the mid-South, many of which were genetically engineered.

Even though California doesn't have problems with boll weevil, pink bollworm, or Mexican bollworm, and has only minor armyworm pressure, Delta and Pine Land sold growers on Roundup Ready Cotton and stacked varieties, including BollGard. They "scared" growers into thinking that they needed gene-altered cotton, Allen says.

Weather and irrigation play an important part in cotton growing. In dry California, all growers irrigate. Many do so to such an extent that weeds, the only serious cotton pest in the state, get a jump-start. Rather than paying lots of money for genetically engineered seeds and herbicides to kill the weeds, he says, the Sustainable Cotton Project advises farmers to irrigate every other row. With less growth, they can enter and cultivate. Project growers also turn off the spigot at the end of August. This reduces weed growth and water bills. Participating farmers have decreased water use to one and a half acre feet of water versus the four to seven acre feet that conventional growers use.

Besides, extra water and nitrogen late in the summer (beyond August), Allen says, increase mainly the vegetative growth of cotton plants, not fruiting. The extra bolls that farmers do get from irrigation, extra nitrogen and growth regulators don't offset the cost of water, labor and chemicals.

So, although the Project's sustainable growing techniques result in similar yields as traditional methods that rely on lots of water and chemicals (and now genetic engineering), he says that its methods save the farmer $150 to $200 per acre.

Allen wants seed corporations to offer more options for biological integrated pest management and organic systems instead of genetically engineered seeds, which growers don't need.

Will Allen is a vegetable farmer in Vermont and a program director for the Sustainable Cotton Project in California, where he grew cotton, vegetables, melons, and walnuts for 30 years. You can reach the Sustainable Cotton Project at 530.589.2686 or find it on the Internet at www.sustainablecotton.org.

Jim Worstell, Ph.D., runs the Delta Enterprise Network, which you can reach at 870.673.6346 or find on the Internet atwww.deltanetwork.org.