Sea Island Cotton: How technology could help restore the once thriving industry

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Sea Island Cotton is the rarest strain of cotton
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By Samantha Simon

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Antigua and Barbuda’s Sea Island Cotton industry has declined significantly since the days of being one of the most sought-after strains of cotton. It is now one of the rarest, with only 150 bales produced internationally.

This accounts for just .0004 percent of the over 110 million bales of total cotton produced worldwide.

Of those 150 bales, more than half are produced in Barbados, with smaller amounts coming from Antigua and Jamaica.

Despite standing out in quality amongst its peers, thread versus thread, as a plant, Sea Island Cotton has suffered from production shortages.

Limited efforts have been put into fostering and improving existing strains to ensure that pedigree genetic lines of the plant are maintained and, as a result, Sea Island Cotton as a valued commodity has fallen.

There is also a lack of implementation of modern technology to strengthen the plant against environmental challenges such as pests – boll weevils, aphids, and whiteflies – which can damage crops and reduce yields, in addition to fungi, bacterial and viral diseases such as verticillium wilt, and bacterial blight which cause wilting, leaf spots, and yield loss.

According to Luke Nedd, a biotechnologist with a PhD in plant genetics who studied sea Island Cotton, there is a need for rejuvenation of the local plant’s genetics to become more competitive on the international market.

He recommended the use of tissue culture, also known as micropropagation, to produce genetically identical plants within sterile conditions, before exposing them to environmental factors to harden the plants against them, such as salt water, which would allow the plant to survive growth within soils that may have higher salt content.

“We can create a new hybrid, using tissue culture, without necessarily introducing a new gene. What we can do, we can expose the present genes to radiation and if you want it to be resistant to salt water, you introduce it to salt water at that stage (the callous stage), and so the cells rearrange and you are able to get a new hybrid.

“We know that the genes for brackish water tolerance is included in the cotton…but it might not be active,” he explained.

This process can also be used to create resistance to pesticides and other harsh chemicals that may be used in the agricultural process.

Nedd also suggested the use of a specific type of genetic modification that implements the use of bacillus thuringiensis (BT), which is known as the most successful microbial insecticide against different orders of insect pests in agriculture and medicine.

“If we can incorporate this gene, this BT, from that bacteria, which is toxic to insects, not to humans…the toxin that is produced by that bacteria does not affect our complex digestive system like an insect’s…that would eliminate your pesticide use.

“Pesticides are expensive and…research has shown that there is a direct link between agrochemicals and cancers, asthma and early onset of aging,” he said.

Whilst the BT toxin genes are toxic to insects, they cause no harm to humans due to the significant difference in human digestive systems and immunity.

This technology is already being used in large commercial farms within the United States and other large countries that have not signed on to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety.

The latter is an international treaty that addresses the safe handling, transfer, and use of living modified organisms (LMOs) resulting from modern biotechnology across national borders.

The protocol is a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity and focuses specifically on issues related to the potential risks posed by LMOs to biological diversity, human health, and the environment.

The Cartagena Protocol was adopted on January 29 2000, in Cartagena, Colombia, and entered into force on September 11 2003.

Antigua and Barbuda signed the agreement on May 24 2000 and it was ratified on December 9 2003.

Nedd expressed concerns regarding this, as countries such as Russia, Israel, Australia and the US amongst others have not signed the agreement, allowing them to experiment and further their agricultural processes and become more widely accepted on the commercial market.

He further expressed that as they become more widely used within agriculture, their experimentation and greater use would cause Antigua and Barbuda to fall behind even further and leave us increasingly dependent on these countries for food, which would leave us in more difficult straits than were experienced during Covid-19 when exports from these large countries were significantly delayed.

Nedd also argued that, if the twin island nation seriously intends to be competitive agriculturally, embracing technology and becoming a leader in the industry will help us get ahead of the curve, making us a source for this technology for other countries within the region and internationally.

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