Fighting forced labor, Applied DNA forms cotton club

Dark forces: If the cotton comes from Uzbekistan, those inexpensive textiles cost more than you think.

So, where does your cotton come from? Applied DNA Sciences would like you to know.

Adding to its portfolio of crimefighting products and services, the Stony Brook-based biotech has identified lead genetic markers unique to cotton cultivars – produced intentionally by genetic breeding – grown in Uzbekistan, where forced human labor is used to harvest the fluffy fiber.

Now, the anti-counterfeiting and product-authentication specialist is “seeking out partners” in an effort to stop the use of child and forced labor in Uzbek cotton fields, by using its proprietary molecular-tagging and authentication SigNature DNA assay – usually reserved for supply-chain security, theft recovery and other commodity-based crimefighting – to highlight cottons harvested by modern machinery, not forced hands.

James Hayward: Retailers and brands either care where their cotton comes from — or they will.

Identifying cotton fibers without those Uzbek genetic markers – essentially, the guilty fingerprints of human trafficking – will promote the use of forced-labor-free cotton, an important issue for consumers, cotton suppliers and retailers alike, according to Applied DNA President and CEO James Hayward.

“Even if a retailer’s brand were surreptitiously adulterated with Uzbek cotton, the damage to their equity would be irreparable,” Hayward told Innovate LI.

Applied DNA is not alone in its Uzbek crusade. A recent survey conducted on behalf of the company by The Harris Poll determined that more than 61 percent of Americans would stop buying a product if they discovered it was made from cotton picked by child or forced laborers, while more than 250 brands and retailers have signed the Cotton Pledge, a Responsible Sourcing Network vow promising not to knowingly source cotton from Uzbekistan.

Various international laws, including the California Transparency in Supply Chain Act and the UK’s Modern Slavery Act, shine direct lights on the Uzbek cotton industry, while the United States has officially recognized Uzbek cotton as a product made with forced labor – and even stopped some imports of products known to contain it.

According to the Cotton Campaign – an international human rights coalition battling child and forced labor in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan – the Uzbek government forces more than a million Uzbek citizens, including teachers and doctors, to pick cotton for state-run industries by threating their jobs or education or enforcing other penalties.

Kirill Boychenko, who coordinates Cotton Campaign activities for the International Labor Rights Forum, said Applied DNA’s technologies can be a big help.

“Applied DNA’s advances in molecular tagging and cotton genotyping can provide technical guidance on cotton produced with forced labor,” Boychenko said in a statement, adding commercial supply chains and law enforcers can use that information “to ensure responsible sourcing.”

To help end forced labor in Uzbekistan, Applied DNA also aims to promote the introduction of modern ginning and machine-harvesting technologies to the Central Asian nation’s cotton industry, potentially funded by some combination of governments, nonprofit organizations and global cotton-industry sources.

In addition to promoting human rights, it’s a potential economic win for the former Soviet republic of 32 million people: With Applied DNA’s molecular markers officially recognizing forced-labor-free fibers, global cotton-industry leaders could reintroduce Uzbek wares as a superior upland cotton, with new-and-improved ethics.

More than 150 million pounds of domestically produced cotton has been tagged to date, according to Applied DNA, which has also used its biomarkers to battle Swedish car thieves and secure Department of Defense supply lines, among other theft-busting efforts.

Now the Stony Brook firm, which has long referenced cotton as the key industry to righting its financial ship, is eyeing an entirely different kind of crimefighting – and a cause, according to Hayward, that should resonate throughout the global cotton industry.

“When combined with a program of molecular tagging at the source, our products and services can de-risk supply chains for every cotton retailer, brand and manufacturer,” the CEO said.

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