GENEVA — The large-scale shift to genetically modified cotton production by China has the ability to alter global cotton production and trade in textiles and apparel, a new United Nations report said.

In a bid to reduce China’s dependence on cotton imports and foreign genetically modified, or GM, cotton technology, the China Cotton Research Institute has developed several varieties of so-called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) cotton and a large proportion of the seeds, according to the “International Trade in GMOs [genetically modified organisms] and GM Products” report of the U.N. Conference on Trade & Development.

China is still a major importer of cotton and the world’s biggest exporter of apparel.

In 2004, the Bt cotton area in China was estimated at 9.1 million acres, or 66 percent of the total cotton area planted in the country, up from the 6.9 million acres the year before, according to projections by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotechnology Applications cited in the report.

But the U.N. study said the actual GM area planted in China “may be much bigger” due to seed smuggling.

“Bt cotton played an important role in the return of production in some provinces where acreage had declined,” the report said. “Indiscriminate use of insecticides had resulted in increased loll worm resistance to the agents, which in turn produced significant yield losses and resulted in cotton becoming unprofitable.”

The report noted that Chinese government agencies have been investing heavily in agri-biotechnology research. As a result, China has a network of 150 laboratories — the largest plant biotechnology capacity outside North America.

The U.S. remains the world leader in genetically engineered crops and in 2004 planted 117.6 million acres, including soybean, maize, cotton and canola.

Lakshmi Puri, UNCTAD director for international trade, said other developing countries are also getting on board the GMO trend and developing their own technologies, including Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, India, Mexico and South Africa.

Simonetta Zarrilli, UNCTAD analyst and author of the report, said she expects the big developing countries not only to focus on domestic production of GM cotton and other GM crops, but to also focus on exports.

This story first appeared in the June 7, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Last year, India planted 1.2 million acres of Bt cotton, up 400 percent compared with 2003. Poor West African countries are also under pressure to introduce GM cotton, Zarrilli said.

In light of concerns expressed by consumers about bioengineered products, especially in European markets, the report said, the issue of labeling of GM crops remains open in global trade norms.

Some trading nations, it said, “consider that informing consumers through labeling of GM products is a legitimate objective that justifies a trade restriction,” within global disciplines.

However, others argue that labeling “would stigmatize GM products and mislead consumers into thinking that GM products may be unsafe or substantially different from conventional counterparts,” the report noted.

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