Updated: Jul 1, 2021
BT cotton can protect itself from pests. Read on to find out more about what causes it and how it benefits us.
Author: Hanah Gomberg
Editors: Vincent Chang and Peggy Yang
Artists: Tiffany Chen
Bt cotton contains genetic material from other organisms and a GMO, altering its genome. The gene in BT cotton stems from bacillus thuringiensis, a species of bacteria found in soil that contains the cry1Ac gene that harms insects, which are the Cry and Cyt toxins. These insecticidal proteins kill cotton pests, such as larvae of tobacco budworms, bollworms, or Heliothis. GMOs act as a more effective pesticide: their genes break down the stomach wall of insects, killing them, preventing insects from eating those plants. Bt cotton is needed because pesticides prove ineffective at protecting plants; there is an uneven distribution of pesticides. Furthermore, study shows they are harmful to farmers' health and often costly. However, the technology is not perfect as different strands of the Bt bacteria are harmful to more than the intended insects. Some strands of Bt harm pollinators, which hurts the surrounding environment and crops that benefit from pollination.
There are economic implications to genetic engineering in agriculture. GMOs could increase food availability as scientists can genetically engineer them to survive adverse climates. Malnourished communities could use them to farm for themselves. Genetic modification decreases pesticide use in agriculture, leading to a price drop. The papaya crisis in Hawaii from 1940-1990 reduced harvests by 50% due to the ringspot virus, impacting Hawaii’s economy as it heavily relied on papaya export. However, in 11 months, the harvests were restored. Scientists put genes from immune papaya into seeds, allowing cisgenic papaya to grow.
On the other hand, there are negative aspects. The International Journal of Food Contamination reports four hundred cases of GMO contamination in 1997-2013 in 63 countries. Bees pollinate plants, meaning pollen from GMOs contaminated crops from other fields. This phenomenon is called genetic drift, and it cost farmers as they lost an organic stamp and premium earned for producing it. Some farmers cannot afford this technology, leaving them at a disadvantage. As a result, they will lose profits, while those who can gain profits.
There are environmental implications to genetic engineering. New methods are developed, many positively impacting the environment and contributing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Techniques like editing a plant's genomes increased their photosynthesis’ efficiency. GMOs may not require fertilizers like Bt cotton, which is beneficial as fertilizers contaminate fields and water supplies.
On the other hand, GMOs may harm non-target wildlife, contributing to a decrease in pollinators. This is problematic as they will not pollinate and may die at increasingly rapid rates. Without bees, there will be a lack of biodiversity, wildlife habitats may crumble, and wild plant growth will decrease. GMOs prove to affect biodiversity as dominant species, like genetically enhanced GMOs, may overrun existing ones as they are not resistant to the environment. Biodiversity is vital because it provides functioning ecosystems that supply oxygen, water and pollinate plants.
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