Organic cotton fraud?

7 04 2010

A recent report in The Financial Times of Germany alleged  that a ‘gigantic fraud’ was taking place in the sale of cotton garments marked as organic by leading European retailers like H&M, C&A and Tchibo, because they actually contained genetically modified (GM)  cotton.   GM cotton (often called Bt cotton in India) is prohibited in organic cotton.  The source of fabrics, it said, was India.
Interestingly, the paper quoted Sanjay Dave, director of Apeda (Indian Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority), as saying that the fraud was on a large-scale and that two European certifying agencies had been fined for lax processes.  Lothar Kruse, director of the laboratory which ran the tests, was quoted as saying that around 30% of  organic cotton samples from India  were found to be contaminated with GM cotton.   There were charges and countercharges by all involved – and Indian organic cotton has become suspect.  How did this happen?

In August, 2009, the Indian Ministry of Textiles took several initiatives to strengthen their textiles industry  —  among them was a commitment to “safeguard and promote” organic cotton.  Organic cotton had become an important crop in India:  according to the Organic Exchange, India accounted for about 65% of all the organic cotton produced worldwide in 2008-09, making India the No.1 producer of organic cotton in the world. And since the global market for organic cotton is growing by as much as 150 per cent per year (based on 2008-09 figures) its make sense for India to support organic cotton where it is already a market leader in a product for which an assured market exists and is growing.

And yet at the same time, the Indian government (through the Department of Biotechnology of the Ministry of Science and Technology) is supporting and promoting genetically modified cotton.  India allowed the commercial cultivation of genetically modified (GM) cotton in 2002, and by 2006, GM cotton accounted for 42% of the total Indian cotton crop. This makes India the country with the largest area of GM cotton in the world, surpassing China.  According to Reuters,  Indian farmers will grow genetically modified cotton on 90 % of the area under cotton cultivation by 2012.  See our blog posts on GMO crops:  Reasons for concern regarding GMOs and GMO Cotton.

Organic cotton  and genetically engineered cotton are mutually self-excluding commodities –  organic cotton prohibits the inclusion of any genetically engineered cotton.  So the Indian government is bumbling in two contradictory directions at the same time.  There have been warnings from opponents of genetically engineered crops that if GM cotton were to contaminate traces of organic cotton, the consignments of organic cotton would lose the certification that gets them a premium price advantage and be rejected by markets interested in buying organic cotton.  Organizations such as Gene Watch (UK) and Greenpeace have warned that it is impossible to keep agricultural produce like cotton or rice or strawberries apart once they are ready for the market.  These organizations also maintain a register of instances where genetically engineered crops have contaminated conventional or organic crops. The contamination cases run into hundreds across the world, often with grave economic consequences. Not so long ago, consignments of US rice exported to several countries had to be recalled because traces of GM rice was found in rice that was declared as conventional, non GM rice. The cost of recall was prohibitive but the greater damage was done to America’s future rice exports. Once countries returned the contaminated US rice, other rice exporting nations like Thailand entered the newly available markets in Europe, Japan and South Korea and established themselves there.

And the warnings by Gene Watch and Greenpeace have just come true in the form of the scandal which broke in January, 2010 based on  the report in the German edition of Financial Times

This casts a cloud over all exports of organic products from India, of which cotton is the leading item.

But in all this uproar, who is losing the most?  Once again it’s the small farmer in India.   The African proverb that when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers, is certainly true in this case.

A bit of history:  The Indian government, in a desperate bid to promote the uptake of GM seeds, banned traditional seed varieties from many government seed banks in 2002  and allowed Monsanto to sell their new seed creations.  In return for this access, India was granted International Monetary Fund loans.

Because the family livelihood of Indian farmers depends entirely on good decisions being made, they often seek advice or take a lead from someone she/he thinks knows best. The average farmer is illiterate and ignorant of the implications of planting a GM crop, but lives in the hope that money borrowed to produce a cash crop will be more than repaid after a good harvest.   Monsanto began advertising the new GM seed heavily;  it was pervasive, with utterly misleading claims,  emanating from  celebrities, government officials, journalists, agricultural and corporate scientists, larger landowners and seed dealers who had either jumped on the media bandwagon or had vested interests in GM cotton sales. Bollywood personalities such as Nana Patekar attributed almost miraculous powers to the product on TV. Punjab Chief Minister Amrinder Singh  personally endorsed the Bollgard brand (one of Monsanto’s GM seed varieties sold in India). Local opinion leaders such as larger landowners received seed and pesticide discounted or free, and ‘poor farmers’ who extolled the virtues of GM cotton locally  turned out not to be farmers at all.

In the past, if a crop failed, the farmer could use his seed from prior years to replant his crop.  But with GM seeds they could not do this, because the seeds contain “terminator technology” meaning that the crops do not produce viable seeds of their own.  So farmers must buy seeds each year – at punitive prices:  GM seed costs about $15 for 4 ounces of seed, compared to $15 for 4,000 ounces of traditional seeds.

Farmers are also desperate to avoid the spiraling cost of pesticides, and were taken in by GM cotton advertising and Monsanto’s extravagant claims. For example, at the point of sale, when farmers are vulnerable, seed dealers  hyped up the yield of a hypothetical farmer’s GM cotton (based on Monsanto claims that yields are 30 – 40% higher than conventional hybrid seed) because the seed dealers profit is four times greater per drum than for non GM seed.  In addition,  Monsanto claims pesticide use will be 70% less because their Bollgard variety is supposed to  kill 90% of bollworms.

This perfect storm led to widespread adoption of GM seeds by Indian farmers.  But the promises made by Monsanto have proven to be false over time: GM cotton required double the amount of water that non GM varieties required (proving to be a matter of life and death for many),  many crops have been devastated by bollworms and there have been widespread crop failures.  (read  more here ).   Farmers, beguiled by  promises, incurred debts that they could not repay.  Thousands of farmers, according to the Mail Online in November, 2008, “are committing suicide”.  The crisis, branded the ‘GM Genocide’ by campaigners, was highlighted recently when Prince Charles claimed that the issue of GM had become a ‘global moral question’ – and condemned ‘the truly appalling and tragic rate of small farmer suicides in India, stemming… from the failure of many GM crop varieties’.
Read more here and here.

Many organizations have been trying to convert Indian farmers to organic practices –  “desperate times call for organic measures”.  The fact that farmers don’t have to spend money on pesticides and fertilizers coupled with the premium of 15 – 20% over conventional cotton that organic cotton commands in the marketplace has helped convince many farmers that organic agriculture is worth a try.   Yet now  organic cotton from India has been reported to be contaminated with GM cotton, leading many to cry fraud.

This was not unforeseen:  drift or contamination of GM with non-GM crops has long been a concern, especially now that 65-75% of total cotton production is made up of  GM cotton.  According to P.  Gouri, adviser on organic products to Apeda,   “measures to prevent contamination through strict implementation of a 50-meter refuge (buffer zones around farms growing GM cotton to prevent the pollens from contaminating neighboring farms) are absolutely essential.  If GM farming practices are regulated strictly, we can keep contamination at manageable-levels, specially if farmers use non-cotton as a buffer.”  Yet,   there have been  many violations of biosafety regulations; in addition there are no standards for the permissible amount of contamination in organic cotton.    Nobody is addressing the problem of gene transfer to conventional plants; and a general disregard of separation distances between the GM and non-GM crop makes contamination a fait acompli . Similarly, there is a general lack of enforcement of 20 percent non-GM refugia, designed to slow the evolution of pest resistance. The several generations of bollworm that live annually on a crop can lead to 60 percent resistance in a single year.

According to the Human Genome Project, the act of genetically modifying something like organic cotton has its own ripple effect from the potential environmental impacts of unintended transfer of trans genes through cross-pollination and unknown effects on other organisms (e.g., soil microbes), to the loss of flora and fauna biodiversity.  With no regulation of GM cotton, GM produce is entering our food and feed chain as cottonseed oil and cake.  (Did you know that we eat more of the cotton crop than we wear?)  Genetically engineered cotton has all kinds of stuff we’ve never eaten before: viral promoters, antibiotic-resistant genes, special bacteria.  Organic food producers are very concerned. This problem will continue to grow as fourteen new GM varieties of India’s staple crops were approved for field trials that began in 2005.



Currently, India and her customers rely on third party certifying agencies, such as Control Union, to substantiate organic claims.  Certification is being done as per GOTS, or Global Organic Textile Standards, but India is formulating its own standards. The biggest innovation is TraceNet, a web-based traceability system that has been introduced in the country, to trace and track all organic certifications for exports to ensure purity.   Inspectors employed by certification agencies will use GPS devices for capturing data so that wrong certifications are eliminated.

Fingers crossed.


GMO cotton

23 09 2009

gmo1The Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) prohibits all “genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and their derivatives”.  According to the Organic Exchange, none of the organic growing standards established by any government allows for GMO crops.  In April, 2009, Germany announced a plan to ban all GMO crops in the country, citing concerns of the environmental impact, making Germany the latest in a string of EU countries to outlaw GMO crops.  And during a public comment period in 2000, the Organic Trade Association generated 275,000 letters against GMOs being included in the National Organic Program (NOP).

Why the fuss?  After all, GMO crops were developed to help us meet the demands our burgeoning population makes on our limited resources.  How can that be bad?

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are plants, animals and microorganisms which have been altered genetically.  Here’s how the National Orgtanic Standards Board puts it:  “Genetically engineered is defined as:  made with techniques that alter the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes.   Genetic engineering includes recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro-and macro-encapsulation, gene deletion and doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes.”(1)

The benefits of genetic engineering in the agriculture sector is great, according to its proponents.  GMO crops have been hailed as a way to increase yields by protecting against pests, drought and disease.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has put forward the arguments for GMOs in agriculture, (such as increased yields and better resistance to pests and other stresses – which reduces dependence on chemicals needed for crop protection.   They also list the arguments against GMO crops. There is great debate about the pros and cons of this relatively new product.

But before looking at some of the reasons so many are opposed to genetic engineering,  let’s look at the issues pertaining to fiber crops only – and to cotton specifically:

Shortly after GMO cotton was introduced, GMO cotton producers, citing advances based on new GMO cotton  and supported by a series of Cotton Incorporated conferences on sustainable cotton,  portrayed conventional cotton as the new “sustainable” choice and organic cotton as an old and inadequate solution that is “as out-dated as last year’s fashions.”  (Editor’s note:  They also redefined the term “sustainable” to include “growing profitability.”)

GMO cotton was quickly adopted by cotton farmers, and millions of hectares of GMO modified cotton has been planted worldwide since its introduction in 1996.

Why did so many farmers pay for GMO seed – which cost more – and plant this new crop?  Bottom line: they were told that there was more money to be made from GMO cotton.    GMO cotton was supposed to have higher yields at the same time it was helping to reduce costs.  Cost savings in chemicals and manual labor was estimated at between 15 – 30%.   How did it reduce dependence on chemicals:

  • GMO cotton was engineered to reduce insect pests so farmers could reduce their chemical dependence on pesticides, and buy less of them.  The gene coding for Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) was inserted into the cotton.  Bt is a protein that acts as a natural toxin to the larvae of certain moths, butterflies, beetles and flies (including the dred bollworm) and is harmless to other forms of life.  When the larvae feed on the cotton they are killed by the Bt protein – thereby eliminating the need for a broad spectrum insecticide.
  • GMO cotton was designed to be resistant to herbicides so that weed killers could be liberally sprayed on crops without worrying about killing the cotton plants.  It was genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate (marketed as Roundup in the USA and manufactured by Monsanto – remember this fact) which is a broad-spectrum herbicide, and toxic to humans at concentrations far below the recommended agricultural use levels. (2)  Studies link glyphosate to spontaneous abortions, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

Not only could they make more money, but  GMO cotton crops were also promoted as helping tackle world hunger and poverty, and helping small farmers. If you were a cotton farmer, how could you resist?  They didn’t:  Today 86% of all United States cotton, 68% of all Chinese cotton, and 76% of all Indian cotton (three of the major cotton growing countries) is now GMO cotton. (3)

Initial results seemed that all they promised was true – early studies in 2002/2003 reported that pesticide and herbicide use was down and yields were up (by as much as 80%)  for GMO cotton (4).  But these results were short lived.   Recent reports are full of data on GMO crops requiring ever more doses of chemical pesticides and herbicides to control pests which are mutating faster than even their worse case scenarios had envisioned,  and becoming resistant to the genetic modifications found in GMO cotton.  A study published by the Institute for Science in Society reports that Bt cotton fields rarely have studies done on what the crops do to the soil itself; they found that soil growing Bt cotton had significantly fewer beneficial soil enzymes in the soil (which makes nutrients available to plants) and total biomass was reduced 8.9%.  This, they conclude, could even lead to dead soils, unable to produce food.

What about the promise of reduced chemical dependence on pesticides and herbicides?

It was always thought that pests would eventually evolve and develop a resistance to Bt.  It wasn’t a question of whether resistance would happen, but how quickly it would evolve.  The Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in India published the (then currently held) opinion that, “with the current rate of increase in the area under Bt cotton, it is likely to take about 11 – 12 years for the pest to develop resistance to Bt cotton.  However, with implementation of proper strageties as suggested by CICR, it is possible to delay resistance by at least 30 – 40 years if not more.”  Worse case scenario was thought to be three years.

Yet in 2008 the University of Arizona published some of the first documented cases of bollworm resistance to Bt. Professor Bruce Tabashnik, a renowed insect researcher and the primary researcher of this study, said “our results contradict the worse-case scenarios of some experts under which resistance to Bt plants was expected in three years.  It is no surprise that, after a while, pests can develop biological strategies against insecticidal agents and become thereby insensitive:  as  a rule, even advantages that have been established in a plant by conventioinal breeding methods only have a limited time span of effectiveness.”

According to a 2008 study  by Friends of the Earth, independent studies have demonstrated not only that pesticide reduction claims are unfounded, but that GM crops have substantially increased pesticide use, particularly since 1999.  Dr. Charles Benbrook, a leading U.S. agricultural sicentist, conducted an “exhaustive analysis of USDA data on pesticide use in agriculture from 1996 to 2004.  His conclusion is that over this 9 year period, adoption of GM soy, corn and cotton crops has led to use of 122 million more pounds of pesticides than would have been used had GM crops not been introduced.”(4)

With regard to herbicides, GM cotton crops were engineered to have a resistance to glyphosate – the primary component in Monsanto’s patented week killer called Roundup.  Roundup is Montsanto’s biggest product, accounting for about 40% of their estimated 2002 revenue of $4.6 billion.  Monsanto sold its GMO seeds under the brand name, “Roundup Ready” because farmers could spray the herbicide directly onto their fields and not have to worry about killing their crop.  The popularity of Roundup Ready crops skyrocketed, and the use of Roundup also skyrocketed.  In the U.S. alone, glyphosate use jumped by a factor of 15 between 1994 and 2005, according to the Center for Food Safety.  That led to a host of  “superweeds” developing a resistance to Roundup.   Farmers were told that in order to combat glyphosate-resistant weeds they’d have to apply other chemicals, often in combination with higher rates of glyphosate.   In 2005, Monsanto recommended farmers use several additional herbicides with Roundup, including Prowl (pendimethalin), metolachlor, diuron and others.    In fact, recent data shows resistance to herbicides in general, and herbicides used in GMO crops in particular, has escalated at exponential rates, according to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds.

According to the Friends of the Earth study, cited above: ” When forced to admit that herbicide-tolerant crops increase overall pesticide use, biotech industry apologists quickly fall back on a second claim: the increasing use of glyphosate has reduced use of more toxic herbicides, and so is a benefit to the environment. While this was true in the first few years of Roundup Ready crops, a look at recent trends in herbicide use undermines this claim.”  For instance, 2,4-D is the second most heavily used herbicide on soybeans; it is a herbicide that formed part of the defoliant Agent Orange, and has been associated with health risks such as increased risk of  both cancer and birth defects – and use of 2,4-D more than doubled from 2002 to 2006.  Likewise, use of atrazine (which is linked to endocrine disruption, neuropathy, breast and prostate cancer and low sperm counts) rose by nearly 7 million lbs (a 12% increase).

And according to the Friends of the Earth study,  “It is important to understand two key facts about weed  resistance. First, resistance is defined as a weed’s ability to  survive more than the normal dose of a given herbicide rather than absolute immunity. Higher doses of the herbicide will often still kill the resistant weed, at least in the short term. The  second fact follows from the first. Weed resistance is not only the result of using an herbicide excessively, it often leads to still
greater use of that herbicide.”

And the promised yield increases?  Often, the answer depends on weather and growing conditions rather than types of seed planted.  Average cotton yields in the United States  were stagnant from 1996 (when GM cotton was introduced) to 2002 (when it made up 76% of cotton acerage);  there was a record yield in 2004 and 2005 but these increases were chiefly attributable to excellent weather conditions. (5)   In fact the question is really whether the yield for U.S. cotton is lower than it would have been had it not been Roundup Ready seed! (6)  Other parts of the world had similar or worse results.

Another facet of this discussion should include the fact that GMO seeds are expensive:  in India, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready cotton seed was selling  for twice the price of non-GMO seeds.    GMO seeds cannot be saved and used for next season’s crop.   The high price for the seed led to farmers in India often having to take out loans from moneylenders who charged exorbitant interest rates.  In a poignant article in the New York Times,  Somini Sengupta published a discussion about the rash of suicides by Indian farmers – 17,107 farmers committed suicide in 2003 – and lays the blame on a combination of rural despair and American multinational companies peddling costly, genetically modified seeds.

According to the Friends of the Earth, GM crops do not fulfill their promise.

  1. GM crops do not tackle hunger or poverty.
  2. GM crops increase pesticide use and foster the spread of resistant “superweeds”.
  3. GM crops do not yield more and often yield less than other crops. (7)
  4. GM crops benefit the biotech industry and some large growers, but not small farmers.

But why is the Organic Trade Association and GOTS so adamantly opposed to GMO crops?  Why are European countries like Germany banning the sale and planting of GMO crop?  And why did the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) release a position  paper calling for a moratorium on genetically modified foods?  That’s next week’s post.

(1) Organic Materials Review Institute,

(2) Benachour N and Séralini G-E.. Glyphosate formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells Chem. Res. Toxicol. , 2009, 22 (1), pp 97–105

(3)  GMO Compass;

(4)  Qaim, Matin and Zilberman, David, “Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Croops in Dveloping Countries”, Science, 2.7.03

(4) “Who Benefits From GM Crops?”, Friends of the Earth,  issue 112 Agriculture and Food; January 2008, page 7.

(5) Meyer, L., S., MacDonald & L. Foreman, March 2007.  Cotton Backgrounder.  USDA Economic Research Service Outlook Report.

(6) Friends of the Earth, op cit.

(7) “Corn, Soy Yields Gain Little From Genetic Engineering”, Agence France Presse, April 14, 2009