Genetically Engineered Cotton in Jeopardy
by Marc Lappé and Britt Bailey September, 1997
In the early weeks of August, 1997, farmers throughout the mid-south region
of the United States began watching their beautifully poised cotton bolls
fall of their engineered plants causing millions of dollars in damage.
The failing plants are the first to be grown commercially containing an inserted
Roundup Ready gene, making the cotton plants able to withstand two seasonal
dousings of Roundup® herbicide. The 1997 planting season was to
be the debut of the much heralded Roundup Ready cotton product.
In early spring, approximately 600,000 acres nationwide of the newly bioengineered
crop, created by Monsanto Company, were sown with Roundup Ready cotton
or about 2.3% of the 14 million acres of cotton planted nationwide.
But three quarters of the way through the growing season, something
has gone awry. Cotton bolls, the billowy fruit of the plant which embraces
the cotton seeds (which are ginned from the raw fibers) have become misshapen
after the second and final Roundup® application. Many of the bolls
are simply falling off of the plant. These failings are reportedly occurring
in the states of Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Lousiana. According
to Robert McCarty of the Bureau of Plant Industry in Mississippi, whom we
reached on September 2, 1997, "we are receiving complaints from
farmers everyday." The complaints are identical: the bolls become
deformed and subsequently fall off the plant. Mr. Bill Robertson, a
cotton specialist in Arkansas claims that they are seeing similar problems.
"We call the malformation 'parrot beaked,' because the bolls look like
the beaks of parrots, then they fall off of the plant before they are mature,"
Robertson said. The first reports of the failure of the crops placed
the number of affected acres in the 4-5000 range, though according to Mr.
McCarty, "we are talking at least 20,000 acres in Mississippi alone and
we are getting new complaints everyday. Now that is a lot of acreage,
economically speaking. Some farmers are losing $1 million due to this
At this point, the investigation of this disturbing reversal of fortune
remains inconclusive. The state agriculture agencies are gathering economic
data to help the farmers to gain compensation for their losses. Monsanto
Company is also doing an investigation as to the economic losses, and are
likely to be the only ones capable of discovering why the Roundup Ready
cotton crops have failed. According to Karen Marshall of the Monsanto
Company, "there are a number of environmental factors that can put stress
on cotton plants." But the failures are not occurring in all cotton
varieties, just those few varieties that are Roundup Ready. Ms.
Sunny Jeter, a Roundup Ready marketing representative of Monsanto, insists
that the failure was only occurring in a very small portion of the Roundup
Ready cotton crops. She emphasized Monsanto is being very proactive
in getting information to farmers about the problem. When we spoke
with Tommy McDaniel, a State of Mississippi agricultural specialist acting
on the front lines, so to speak, he took a different tack, saying "Monsanto
is not talking to anyone and they are not saying what is causing the problem."
The details that have emerged to date give little cause for optimism.
Something has gone seriously wrong with the Roundup Ready technology.
The failure is occurring in specific Roundup Ready Paymaster varieties
#1244, #1215, #1330, and #1220. All of these varieties have been used
in the two previous years without any apparent problems. But this year
only the Roundup Ready versions of these varieties are failing.
There is very little known at this time about the problem other than yields
are being affected and the problems are only with plants containing the Roundup
Ready gene. Several extension agents and investigators with whom
we spoke are speculating about why the crops are failing. Most of the
speculations assert that the newly inserted gene has caused instability within
As with the last apparent failure of a related genetically engineered crop,
Bt cotton, this is a case of the unknown. We may never know. In attempting
to speak to a Monsanto scientist to ask why crop failures are occurring and
were told that "the information is not available." The government
does not require this reporting, leaving the public and the farming community
in the dark about the cause of the problem. The USDA's Director of Biotechnology
and Scientific Services admitted he was "totally unaware of the problem."
We see a larger issue here. When Monsanto released its technology this
year, they asserted it was "ready" for commercial scale application.
But in this first year of large scale planting a significant portion of the
released crops are failing. Should not Monsanto have anticipated this
eventuality by field testing the 1997 crop? Should not geneticists have
studied just where in the plant's genome its new gene was inserted?
What occurred in the plant to make it shed its fruit prematurely?
We think this result underscores our concern that mass planting of transgenic
crops are at the least premature. If these engineered plants were any
other life form, no one would have permitted their widespread introduction
into the environment without an Environmental Impact Statement. Though
scientists are now able to isolate and implant genes into seeds, they lack
a full understanding of how new genes function. Scientists still do
not have answers to fundamental questions. We do not know why certain
genes "take" in their new host and others do not, or where the gene
goes once it is ensconced in its new host. These questions are even
more difficult to understand with crops such as cotton. Most crops manufactured
today are hybrids which means that in most cases the first generation of seed
is a known genetic entity when it is planted. Cotton is not a hybrid.
The seeds that are planted often represent the fifth or sixth generation of
plant descendants. With each new generation there is a reorganization
of the genes. So, the new gene may be effective in one place within
the genome, but may cause another quite different reaction when reorganized
the next year. In other words, Monsanto, the seed companies, and the
farmers do not know on any given year where the new gene has become integrated
in that year's genome, or how exactly it will affect the plant growth.
Planting non-hybrid genetically engineered plants one year after another is,
in fact, a genetic crapshoot. We are left with disturbing questions
as transgenic crops go into mass production. How much are we willing
to jeopardize our evolutionary future of food crops? How much uncertainty
is generated by transgenic creation of new plants? And are we really
ready to let large corporations play God in the critical area of food biotechnology?