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Cropchoice Opinion...
Biotech Cotton - Triumph or Treadmill?

(16 May - Cropchoice Opinion) -- There's no question about it. Biotech cotton is popular in the South. Not everyone has switched; but Bt and Roundup Ready have a big following. One kills bollworms, the other is just plain easier. But each has an emerging insect problem. Is it a bump in the biotech road or handwriting on the wall?

The problem in Bt cotton is stink bugs. According to Farm Progress, stink bugs are becoming a concern "primarily because of the reduced use of broad-spectrum insecticides for managing the boll weevil and the budworm/bollworm complex." Southern farmers, who might have been happy reducing sprays, are now being advised to scout and, when necessary, apply insecticides. It's an unadvertized 'bonus' for Bt cotton that's a headache for farmers. It might be one reason why demand for Bt varieties is down this year.

With Roundup Ready cotton, it's boll weevils. The problem has to do with volunteer cotton in Roundup Ready soybeans. Since nobody usually worries about boll weevils in soybeans, and the volunteer cotton resists glyphosate, it provides a refuge - a potential jumping off point - for boll weevil populations. Ironic, since farmers have paid a lot for weevil containment programs in many states. The advice to farmers: If you're following RR cotton with glyphosate-resistant soybeans, apply chemical controls to stop volunteer cotton.

Many farmers are experiencing the stink bug problem. The boll weevil "refuge", first spotted in South Carolina, isn't as widespread; but it has the potential to crop up in more places.

It raises the question: How well will the big promise to farmers of biotech cotton - reduced input costs and less spraying - hold up over time? Is scouting and spraying for stink bugs "better" than spraying for bollworms - especially if pressure increases?

Companies will have an answer: throw more genes into stacked varieties. DeltaPine is already testing the ultimate answer for volunteer cotton - terminator technology, arguably the most unpopular idea in agriculture in decades. The first time a farmer buys Terminator technology will probably be the last he ever has the option of saving cotton seed.

And, probably, a gene can be found to combat stink bugs.... and whatever other pest makes a comeback after it.

Seed companies will be happy to sell biotech solutions to the problems that biotech varieties cause or contribute to. But imagine this hypothetical "super-stacked" variety and the contract, tech fee, and lack of producer control that might go with it.

Sounds like a treadmill. But admittedly, this is a pessimistic outlook. Many farmers say still biotech is making life easier. And not every new biotech variety will create a problem as bad as one it was meant to solve.

But why aren't more people asking how much of the biotech benefit to farmers is trading new problems for old?