Originally created 08/11/01

Genetically altered cotton battles the bollworm



BLACKVILLE, S.C. - Between the rows of cotton that grow outside this town there is a war going on.

And in this war, which pits the shrinking number of growers against the minute insects that eat away at their crops, science has created a new and improved weapon: a genetically engineered cotton plant that could virtually eliminate the insecticide needed to kill the plant's top enemy.

It is a weapon that has its detractors. Many organizations have called for moratoriums on the use of genetically altered food or on product labels that use them. They say the unforeseen risks are too high a price to pay for better food.

But researchers at the Edisto Research and Education Center, supported by Clemson University's Extension Service, promote the benefits of killing the bollworm over the debatable science.

Farmers will spend little to nothing for insecticide and use it less and less to kill the bollworm, promoters say.

"I don't know why the environmentalists get upset about genetic engineering, because we are reducing the amount of insecticides," said Rebecca Ridge, a Clemson master's student studying genetically engineered cotton.

Ms. Ridge is studying the effectiveness of the altered cotton seed called Bollgard. The original version has been shown to kill 70 percent of bollworms, cotton's most persistent enemy since insecticides eradicated the boll weevil in the 1980s.

Ms. Ridge said the public mistakenly associates her work with the fear over other engineered crops, such as StarLink corn, that have come under fire.

"They see genetic engineering and say bad stuff, get away," she said.

But the work on cotton - which can be used in cloth, cow feed and cotton seed oil - hasn't generated much debate because the crop isn't a food source like many altered crops have become in Europe.

Bollgard is a seed injected with a protein of the bollworm's bacteria that has been engineered to release a toxin to the worm when it ingests the plant. The seed has been available to farmers since 1996.

The newer version, which has two engineered proteins inside, is slated to be available in 2003.

For now, Ms. Ridge watches her 12 rows of cotton daily. She and others turn the plant's leaves toward the ground, beat them with their hands and count the worms that fall off.

There haven't been many.

Using a sampling of 100 plants, Ms. Ridge said researchers this summer have found only one worm of noticeable size and they don't expect to find many more before the October harvest.

Monsanto Co. has been developing Bollgard both domestically and overseas and owns the patent. But many genetically engineered crops are not yet available to farmers, and there is some doubt about whether they will utilize the newer version of Bollgard.

While the new technology has pushed down the amount of insecticides being used and reduced the number of worms, it has allowed secondary pests such as stink bugs, plant bugs and sucking pests to grow in number.

Farmers still have to use sprays on those bugs even if they use the new cotton.

"Why shouldn't they plant conventional cotton if they have to treat the Bollgard cotton?" asked Austin Jenkins, another Clemson graduate student, who is studying the secondary pests of cotton.

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or mboedy@augusta.com.