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Missouri cotton grower avoids transgenic technology

(June 14, 2001 – CropChoice news) – Cotton. Around the world, the news seems to be of cotton farmers going the transgenic route. They grow Monsanto’s Roundup Ready or Bt cotton in the United States, China, and, now, Argentina. But the technology is not without its critics. One farmer we spoke with has opted out of the technology by going organic.

Last week, the Argentine government approved the cultivation of Roundup Ready cotton, which Monsanto engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). The country’s farmers already grow large amounts of transgenic soybeans and corn.

Walter Pengue, a researcher at the University of Buenos Aires, points out that weeds in the soybean fields of the Pampas region of Argentina are developing resistance to glyphosate.

On top of that, the transgenic seed is almost twice as expensive as conventional varieties.

But, thousands of miles to the north, Steve McKaskle avoids trasngenic crops. He organically grows cotton, soybeans and corn in southern Missouri. Organic standards disallow the use of transgenic seeds in crop production.

Weeds are perhaps the biggest battle, but McKaskle manages them with a variety of methods, including flaming and substances that deter germination. These measures, including hand labor, cost the same as the herbicide-reliant systems that conventional farmers employ, he says.

To avoid the occurrence of weed seeds, cotton often is sown in the same soil beds each year – the stale-bed approach.

Before planting, he employs an implement with a shank to dig a deep groove between the first and last rows of his beds. Close behind comes a tool with iron wheels that fit into the groove. The result is a sort of a guidance system for the flame-thrower used to burn weeds. Shields prevent operators from burning the cotton plants.

McKaskle’s also experimenting with corn gluten meal, a byproduct of the manufacture of hominy, and other substances that prevent or delay germination. He applies the gluten meal to the top quarter inch of soil before it’s warm enough for weeds to begin germinating. The cotton is planted deeper into the soil where it can germinate freely.

To avoid, or at least minimize, transgenic contamination, he reserves land to grow cotton and soybean seed stock. The corn seed comes from local growers who don’t grow transgenic varieties. Whenever he does buy seed, McKaskle tests it for foreign genes.

"Organically grown cotton is selling at a premium right now," says Van Ayers, an extension agent for the University of Missouri. "It's a good niche." It sells for about $1 per pound, twice what growers get for conventional or transgenic cotton. But, four years ago, there was no premium. All cotton sold for $1 per pound.

See related CropChoice story: Farmers catchin' on to problems with biotech cotton Cotton growers catchin' on to problems with biotech cotton