(NaturalHealth365) How does a scientist – who spent years modifying GM crops for a major biotech company – end up developing new varieties of organic cotton for farmers in the High Plains of Texas? For Jane Dever, a former global plant breeding manager at Bayer CropScience, the switch to a career in organic and non-GMO foods was all about following her heart – and her passion for plant breeding, genetic diversity and genetic resource preservation.
According to Dever, her current job breeding organic cotton for the AgriLife Research and Extension Center at Texas A and M University is simply a better personal and philosophical fit, allowing her to focus on breeding as an ongoing project. In contrast, says Dever, the emphasis at Bayer was on developing each plant as a separate and clearly-defined process.
Genetic engineering scientist has a ‘change of heart’
Dever refers to the career change, which she made in 2008, as a “leap of faith,” and adds that she was supported in the move by local farmers, as well as the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative.
The High Plains area of west Texas could very well be called “Organic Cotton Central.” According to The Organic and Non-GMO Report, it is home to 95 percent of the 15, 685 acres of organic cotton planted in the US within the past year.
Organic scientists strive to improve crops without the use of genetic manipulation.
Dever’s work at AgriLife, where she is also an associate professor, currently focuses on developing cotton varieties with better fiber quality and increased tolerance to extreme Texas weather, which features drought and sandstorms.
Another goal is to breed cotton with increased resistance to thrips – a common foe of organic cotton – and bollworms. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that – along with the tobacco budworm – bollworms cause more damage to cotton than any other insect pest in the Cotton Belt, at a combined cost of $300 million.
Dever reports that the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative has been testing her cotton since 2011, and the results – a 30 to 40 percent reduction in insect damage – are heartening.
What exactly is involved in the genetic manipulation of cotton?
In order to produce the crop known as Bt cotton, biotechnologists insert DNA from Bacillus thuringiensis, a naturally-occurring bacterium. The micro-organism – which is found in soil – contains a substance known as Cry protein that is toxic to many insect pests.
Ht – or herbicide-tolerant – plants have been genetically modified to be tolerant to glyphosate, the primary ingredient in Roundup, a weed killer made by Monsanto – a fact which allows the biotech giant to sell both the GM seeds and the herbicide as a package.
However, non-GMO advocates insist that GM crops don’t function as advertised. A 2009 report released by The Organic Center shows that Ht crops led to increased use of both herbicides and pesticides.
USDA concedes that resistance to GMO cotton already exists
For well over a decade, the USDA has acknowledged that insect pests could become resistant to GM crops. In a paper released in 2001, the USDA called the production of Bt crops “critical” for cotton producers across the US Cotton Belt, due to increased pesticide resistance and increased production costs.
Yet, the agency conceded that resistance to Bt cotton itself was already developing.
90 percent of the cotton grown in America is genetically modified.
With Bayer CropScience no longer offering any conventional seeds for sale, and the two other primary biotech companies – Monsanto and Dow AgroScience – following suit, Dever reports that local cotton growers are now having great difficulty obtaining organic seeds.
She says she will soon be releasing an organic cotton variety developed for local farmers, and hopes for a processing arrangement with All-Tex Seed – a local cottonseed supplier that offers non-GMO seed stock.
Organic scientists battle the ongoing threat of GMO contamination
She also is turning her energies towards preserving genetic resource plants from accidental GMO contamination. Dever notes that the Roundup Ready GMO trait has been introduced to cotton on such a widespread scale that it is difficult to keep it out of the organic varieties she is developing.
And – even more disturbing – the contamination is invisible. Once it occurs, even on a minute level, it can multiply during any one of many stages in the breeding process – such as plant selection, crossing, or testing.
Tests that can detect the presence of GMO traits are expensive, a fact that spurs Dever’s interest in another research goal: finding a fast, accurate and economical screening process to check organic cotton seed stock for the presence of the gene.
As Dever points out, successful organic cotton breeding is a long-term project. But, by helping regional farmers obtain the “clean seed” that is required, she is ensuring that they are off to a good start.
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