Trillion with a big, nasty T. In 2014, the International Chamber of Commerce projected global counterfeit trade at $1.7 trillion. In 2015? Another $100 billion in fakes took the heap’s height to a dizzying $1.8 trillion. The stunning numbers are easily mistaken for national deficit totals in many countries. And it’s not all electronics and pharmaceuticals on the high seas of illicit trade. Pirates are stealing billions during the exchange of U.S. agriculture goods, and pumping the wares right back onto American department store shelves.

Cotton Crimes

Where there is cotton, criminals are sure to be close. Fiber blending and substitution is an age-old scam, but CSI is ready to take on agriculture crime. Applied DNA Sciences (ADNAS) is using genetic fingerprinting to track cotton fibers from gin to finished product. It’s an unprecedented bloodhound technology and is attracting the attention of the commodity industry.

The quality of U.S. Extra Long Staple (ELS) and Upland cotton is unmatched. When U.S. marketers ship cotton offshore, it goes through multiple transformations and can easily bounce from seven to eight countries in Asia, the Middle East and South America before it returns as a finished product. The big box economy squeezes every link of the daisy chain and handlers looking for gross margins create big profits by cheating. They replace high-quality ELS and Upland fibers with low-quality cotton fibers. “These products are degraded,” says Jim Hayward, CEO of ADNAS. “When retail outlets offer incredible prices for cotton items, U.S. consumers should know there is a reason.”

The nature and structure of global counterfeiting has changed, Hayward explains. Organized crime plays an increasing role, often taking advantage of 50% markups at each stage of exchange. A final counterfeit goods markup can bring a 600% to 700% profit.

High-Tech Tools for Tackling Counterfeit Cotton

ADNAS is fighting back with two major tracking weapons: fiberTyping and SigNature T. The duo allows ADNAS to determine precisely where a cotton sample originates and the level of its purity. If a given shirt or sheet is suspect, ADNAS technology exposes the lie.

Cotton fibers contain DNA traces, and fiberTyping allows ADNAS to connect the puzzle pieces and match them to a variety. fiberTyping is a death blow to blending or substitution, and ADNAS can perform testing in a lab or on-site setting. “It takes a molecular detective to use DNA traces as an identification tool,” Hayward describes. “We can actually identify the cultivar. We can even track fibers from cotton from the early 1800s.”

SigNature T, a second ADNAS approach, serves as a time stamp, and traces cotton by marking fiber with an engineered botanical DNA that can be unique to a brand and retailer, or a moment in time, or a specific growing technique. It’s a vital authentication technology ensuring supply chain and brand integrity. In microscopic amounts, SigNature T is added to cotton during ginning and forms a permanent bond between the ADNAS DNA marker and the moment of marking. It’s essentially an invisible, yet indelible tattoo designating location, sustainability, agronomic practice and much more. SigNature T adds no time and no distraction to the bale pressing process. There is no impact on cotton form or function, and is also low cost, according to Hayward.

ADNAS is working with USDA to GeoType cotton varieties from across the globe. “If a cotton product contains fiber from Uzbekistan, known for forced child labor, we’ll know and retailers will know,” Hayward notes. He says SigNature T technology can be used on any agriculture crop to track and trace. “The DNA complies with FDA guidelines for ingestion. We could mark produce and commodities if necessary.”

What's Next?

Several agrochemical companies have turned to ADNAS to protect chemical products from counterfeiting through SigNature T. “Our DNA platform is also relevant to tracing pharmaceuticals, food, and chemicals,” says MeiLin Wan, vice president of Textile Sales with ADNAS. “Retailers and consumers have had enough. They want to know how products are made and where they come from, right down to the farm when possible.”

Where does a given product truly come from? The question is set to dominate consumerism for generations. “fibertyping and SigNature T provide a means to meet ethical sourcing and ensure a new farm-to-table concept,” Hayward adds. “We’re facing a revolution in the supply chain.”