Great progress has been made in understanding the workings of genes after the discovery of the structure of DNA. These advances made possible conventional breeding programs that have contributed more to cotton plant improvement than any other plant science. These advances hold open the possibility of great new opportunities in cotton plant development, as well as new concerns about risks to human health and the environment, which for cotton have been shown to be unfounded so far.
Molecular techniques, known as "recombinant DNA technology", are now available to isolate genes from plants, insects, animals, and microorganisms and insert them into other organisms. The application of these biotechnology techniques to produce genetically engineered (GE) cotton plants started about two decades ago, and the first GE cotton was planted on a commercial scale in 1996/97 in Australia and the USA.
Currently, two types of genetically engineered cottons are available for commercial cultivation, cotton resistant to bollworms, know as Bt cotton, and herbicide-tolerant cotton. Since its introduction in 1996, GE cotton has been one of the most rapidly adopted technologies ever. An estimated 12% of world cotton area was planted to genetically engineered cotton in 1999/2000 in Argentina, Australia, China (Mainland), Mexico, South Africa and the USA.
The primary benefits from using GE cotton include reduced insecticide use and lower production costs, improved yields, lower farming risks and increased opportunities to grow cotton in areas of severe pest infestation. Secondary benefits include higher populations of beneficial insects and wildlife in cotton fields, reduced pesticide runoff and air pollution, improved farm worker and neighbor safety, reductions in labor and fuel use, and improved soil quality.
The impacts of GE cotton on human health and the environment have been investigated. Regulatory agencies and academies of science in Argentina, Australia, Canada, China (Mainland), Japan, Mexico, South Africa and the USA have concluded that GE cotton does not pose any different risks to human or animal health than non-GE cotton. Regulatory agencies have also determined that the potential for cross-pollination between GE cotton varieties and other plants is very small.
The application of GE technology in cotton is not limited to the development of insect resistance and herbicide tolerance. Genetic engineering may also be used to produce drought-resistant varieties, thus expanding the reach of cotton production. Alternatively, desirable characteristics might be added to cotton, such as increased fineness, higher strength, increased flame resistance, improved wrinkle recovery in fabric, or desirable colors, potentially reducing the need for chemical dyes. Many other uses of GE technology have yet to be thought of. The U.S. cotton industry continues to stay on the forefront of technology to maintain the advantages of U.S. cotton in the world marketplace.