COTTON COUNCIL INTERNATIONAL'S ORIENTATION TOUR Participants in Cotton Council International's 31st annual Cotton USA Orientation Tour recently learned first-hand how plant genetics affect the quality of the cotton fiber they are using at their mills.

At a tour stop at Delta Council in Stoneville, Miss., cotton millers from 17 countries including Bangladesh, Indonesia, Japan and Turkey, attended class with cotton geneticist Bill Meredith.

Meredith, a researcher at USDA's Agricultural Research Service in Stoneville, Miss., educated his captive audience about the fiber and yield characteristics of cotton varieties grown in the United States, most of which, he says, come from the Mid-South.

According to Meredith, 60.2 percent of all cotton acreage in the United States in 1999 was planted to transgenic varieties. In Mississippi, that figure was even higher, with 82 percent of the state's cotton acreage in transgenic varieties. But, Meredith says, whether farmers are growing conventional varieties or transgenic varieties doesn't factor into the fiber quality of U.S. cotton.

As an example, Meredith provided his students with the average length, micronaire and fiber strength for BXN47, which includes the BXN gene, and the fiber properties of its parent line, Stoneville 474. There were, he says, no statistical differences over several years and conditions for any of the measurable fiber properties.

"The individual variety will determine the fiber quality, not the transgenic trait," Meredith says. "From a fiber standpoint, there is nothing about the transgenics that give a plus or a minus to millers." There's also, he says, not much difference in yield or fiber consistency between conventional and transgenic varieties. "Again, it's a varietal difference."

Why then, do cotton producers grow transgenics if they don't provide any yield or quality advantage? "It's for the simplicity of management they offer and the fact that they do a very good job controlling pests," Meredith says.

The factors that do affect fiber properties, he says, are variety, fruiting position, environment and genetics. According to Meredith, the West, due to its environment, produces the cotton with the lowest micronaire. And, while the Southeast and the Mississippi Delta produced stronger cotton over the last 12 years than either the Plains or the San Joaquin Valley, varietal differences resulted in 20 percent stronger cotton in the San Joaquin valley.

Cotton fiber length, he says, is also longer in the Southeast and the Delta when variety effects are eliminated. However, the cotton varieties planted in the West are bred to be longer and stronger than those planted in the Mid-South and Southeast. "It's not the environmental effects of the region, it's the varietal effects," Meredith says.

Why don't geneticists breed better, stronger cotton in the Delta? The simple answer is yield potential. "The yield potential of most of the high-quality varieties grown in the San Joaquin Valley are substantially lower," he says. "For every increment of increased length there is the same incremental decrease in yield. Because of that, there's no price incentive to do it."

Using fiber strength as a measuring tool, if you took the very worst cotton variety produced in the Mississippi Delta and compared it to the very best grown in the United States, you would only see about a $2 difference in the value of that bale, Meredith says.

Sponsored by Cotton Council International, the Cotton USA tour included executives from 27 textile mills from 17 countries in Asia, Latin America and Europe. The companies represented are expected to use about 1.3 million bales of cotton in the 2000 marketing year.

"The companies represented on the tour already consume about 600,000 bales of U.S. cotton annually, but hopefully, as a result of this year's tour, that usage will increase," says Cotton Council International President Larry Nelson, an Edmonson, Texas, cotton producer and ginner. "Over the years, the Orientation Tour has led many foreign textile manufacturers to develop an appreciation for U.S. cotton fiber quality and has furthered the U.S. cotton industry's reputation as a reliable supplier. The tour continues to be an excellent vehicle for helping our industry capture additional market share oversees."

The Washington, D.C.-based Cotton Council International is National Cotton Council's export promotions arm and is dedicated to increasing U.S. exports of cotton, cottonseed, and U.S.-manufactured products.