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disconnected-helix.jpg With permission from DNA Sciences
Tagging cotton fiber with “molecular” digital-like bar codes, applied during the ginning process, in no way changes the feel or performance of cotton fiber.

Tracing the origin of cotton fiber through DNA tagging

DNA tags identifying cotton throughout its journey to consumers.

What are the factors that drive a consumer’s decision to purchase a cotton apparel item? Is it important for them to be able to know from which U.S. cotton production operation the fiber in that apparel item was grown and harvested? 

According to Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor Survey, more than 52 percent of U.S. consumers say they are interested in knowing where the cotton in a clothing item comes from before purchasing it. Nearly a third of consumers (32 percent) say knowing information on a product’s environmental footprint would influence their decision to purchase a clothing item. 

“These and other statistics from the survey reveal that consumers are interested in knowing more about the sustainability of the apparel they buy — but how much more remains a question,” says Kim Kitchings, senior vice president of consumer marketing for Cotton Incorporated. “For example, the cotton’s country of origin may be sufficient information for some consumers, while others want to know details about the farm on which it was grown. At the end of the day, the key apparel purchase drivers for consumers are price, fashion, and comfort. This insight helps, in part, to guide our efforts to market cotton.”  

For the niche segment of consumers who do want to know where the raw cotton was produced, Applied DNA Sciences provides a solution to mark cotton with molecular tags at the gin point, allowing the testing and tracking of those tags across an integrated supply chain. 

FOLLOWING COTTON’S JOURNEY

In their fifth year of working with ginning partners across the U.S. and Australia, Applied DNA Sciences has tagged over 250 million pounds of pima and upland cotton with their SigNature T DNA Transfer System. “We have followed that cotton on its journey from the cotton gin through conversion into sliver, yarn, fabric, and finished goods,” explains MeiLin Wan, vice president of textile sales for Applied DNA Sciences. 

“Our system can be used to tag cotton, wool, or many other agricultural products produced across the world. Provenance is not only about country of origin, but knowing exactly the cotton fiber type, gin location, date, and time that cotton was tagged, while adding to the responsible and sustainable practices that provide brands with forensic proof that support their product claims.”

Because cotton is rehydrated during the ginning process prior to being pressed into a bale, the SigNature T application system is placed in line with a gin’s moisture restoration system. Molecular DNA tags do not change the structure, feel, or performance of cotton fiber in any way. They are like digital bar codes found on grocery products, but synthetic and molecular in nature, and applied in parts-per-billion. 

“It’s actually smaller than nanotechnology, which deals with dimensions and tolerances of less than 100 nanometers,” says Wan. “To analogize, the water containing our molecular DNA tag that is placed in one bale of cotton is equivalent to one drop of water in an Olympic size swimming pool.” 

PCR TESTING

Once applied, the tagged fiber may be tested through Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a widely-used molecular biology technique that exponentially amplifies a few copies of a specific segment of DNA into millions of copies, so they can be more easily read. 

There are currently two methods of reading tagged fiber. One reading system is portable and is being used by those working in the cotton supply chain. The other is conducted by Applied DNA Sciences or designated lab staff. Testing must be conducted in a clean environment by someone who has been trained and is familiar with the applicable protocols and procedures. “Our system is designed to be used by our supply chain partners,” says Wan. “We don’t expect consumers to be testing fiber, yarn, or finished goods. What’s more important is that without a physical tracer on the product itself, you have to trust the paper document, or transaction certificate, which is not bulletproof.” 

The “integrated supply chain system” tags, tests, and tracks fiber from the gin to store shelves as the products are being produced. Tests are conducted during the various phases of cotton’s journey from the time it is carded and turned into sliver at the mill, and then again prior to being turned into greige yarn. 

“We also test it again before it becomes greige goods,” says Wan. “Ready-for-dyeing fabrics are tested as well. Under transaction certificate-based systems, only one audit per-year is typically conducted, with no regular or systematic checking of the product to insure it matches with the certificate. The challenge for cotton’s supply chain will remain if the focus remains purely on a paper trial. True authentication only comes from the product itself.”

The Applied DNA Systems tagging process follows the fiber moving forward across the supply chain, instead of from the product backwards, like many conventional systems. 

PRODUCER INVOLVEMENT

Justin Hawkins, a fifth-generation farmer in northeast Arkansas, has been a ginning customer of Kiech-Shauver-Miller Gin for two seasons. “There’s nothing that makes me happier than being an American farmer and providing quality cotton fiber to consumers,” says Hawkins. Our family farm has been in operation since the early 1900s and we believe that being part of a program that provides a way to verify the origin of fiber used in a textile product is a key part in the ongoing effort to confirm and promote the sustainability of American cotton.” 

Applied DNA Sciences has been working with gins in Texas, California, Arkansas, and Australia to implement their proprietary technology. To market the resulting pima and upland cotton fiber products to consumers, Himatsingka America, a vertically-integrated textile company, has created two ingredient brand development programs: PimaCott and HomeGrown Cotton. Partnering with several American cotton production family operations and the Louis Dreyfus Company, their combined efforts work to ensure to consumers that PimaCott and HomeGrown Cotton are the only American cottons that can be traced back to their source of origin with certainty. 

Part of the impetus for establishing a multi-channeled, integrated branding program was to ensure that textile products claiming to contain pima cotton actually contain pima cotton! Lawsuits filed in 2016 against Welspun India, a Mumbai-based Textile manufacturer, claimed Welspun misrepresented its 100 percent Egyptian cotton sheets after blending other cottons, including pima, into their products. 

“I am proud of the pioneering efforts in cotton traceability made by PimaCott, Applied DNA Sciences, and American cotton growers,” says Aaron Barcellos, a partner in A-Barg Ag, a multi-row crop, fruit, vegetable, and tree nut operation based in Los Banos, Calif. “We have all taken an important first step to bring high-quality traceable cotton fiber from our farms to the customer.” 

TAGS: Cotton Gins
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