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December 07, 2016

DNA: The World’s Newest Partner in the Fight against Forced Labor Slavery

Chances are that as you read this blog, something you have on is made with cotton. But have you ever thought about where that cotton comes from?

With the passage of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015, the U.S. government has tightened the ban on imports made with forced labor. This plus increased awareness about modern slavery is causing consumers and businesses to closely examine the supply chains and origins of the products they buy and sell.

Cotton, which is grown in more than 100 countries, goes on a long and difficult journey before it becomes part of your clothes. The complex supply chain and multi-stage transformation process makes it easy for cotton production to become a seedy business along the way. Fibers may be mislabeled or substituted, sometimes allowing materials made through slavery to slip in.

To help demystify cotton’s complicated supply chain, scientists at Applied DNA are working to create DNA technology that would identify the native cotton species and allow them to track cotton fibers back to the country of origin. Applied DNA’s technology is focused on two different approaches: engineering DNA that tracks the fibers’ source and working to identify the natural DNA found in cotton fibers to trace species and the location of the original harvest.

How reliable is DNA from a dead plant? These fibers retain fragments of DNA, even as they go through the ginning, spinning, weaving, and dying process, maintaining the important elements scientists need to detect their strain. Applied DNA has also partnered with the Department of Agriculture, which has an extensive collection of cotton samples from around the world, to verify the individual strains and ensure their DNA results are conclusive as they relate to country of origin.

Six countries—China, India, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, United States, and Brazil—produce 80 percent of the world’s cotton. Uzbekistan, the fourth largest exporter, is a known offender of slavery in cotton harvesting. Its government sponsors forced labor to harvest cotton every year, but once that cotton is shipped off to other countries to be made into fabric, the workers are forgotten and consumers are blind to the origin of their clothing. Even if your t-shirt says “made in America,” the cotton it was sewn from may include Uzbekistan strands.

The DNA technology would help businesses and consumers avoid funding slavery by allowing us to trace the cotton’s origin. Using this technology to identify Uzbek cotton could be the fastest way to bankrupt a supplier that relies heavily on forced labor to produce goods for markets in Europe and North America. This could be the incentive the Uzbek government needs to stop forcing its citizens to harvest cotton without pay.

DNA technology has the potential to transform the apparel industry by furthering the steps it is already taking to improve worker treatment and eradicate forced labor in supply chains. Responsible manufacturers will utilize this technology to avoid sourcing cotton made with forced labor, helping American companies comply with newly enforceable supply chain laws and giving consumers confidence that no workers were exploited in the production of their clothes. This technology provides all of us with the chance to make a change in one industry, on the road to improving the lives of the estimated 20.9 million people trapped in modern slavery.