It’s time that we go back and take a close look at the upland long staple cottons as a source of new genes to raise the current cotton production system to a new level of competitive capability in the global cotton textile industry, says cotton breeder Hal Lewis.
Boll weevil invasion
In the early part of the 20th century, the Mexican boll weevil invaded the U.S. Cotton Belt, moving quickly into Texas and spreading eastward to the Carolinas. For a time, it appeared that the boll weevil would eradicate cotton production from the United States.
“The boll weevil was probably the most defining change in the cotton industry we’ve ever experienced,” Lewis says. “In order to live with it, we had to change our cotton varieties. R. L. Bennett of USDA and E. C. Ewing of Mississippi State University in conjunction with other cotton state experiment stations developed new genetic types — earlier, more determinate varieties that could be produced with boll weevil pressure. That was a big change from what we previously grew.
“Many sorts of early short staple varieties were tried in the Mississippi Valley as well as elsewhere in the Cotton Belt. These new varieties were early, fast-fruiting types but their fiber quality was inferior to the long staple varieties that they replaced. They produced good crops, but the lint was so much reduced in quality that former customers found it not suitable to meet the needs of their clientele.”
Eventually, the cotton industry responded by developing an eradication program that worked so well that today the boll weevil has been effectively removed from the U.S. Cotton Belt.
“However, we’re basically still growing the same genetics — fast fruiting, early determinate plants — that were developed to counter the boll weevil,” Lewis says. “We no longer have the boll weevil so we now can stop breeding for it. We have the opportunity to revisit our older, higher quality germplasm that we grew before the boll weevil. It’s time that we go back and take a close look at the upland long staple cottons as a source of new genes to raise the current cotton production system to a new level of competitive capability in the global cotton textile industry. This whole germplasm collection is stored at Texas A&M, and is run by the USDA. I encourage Cotton Incorporated to help fund the efforts of the public research institutions to work with these old upland cottons.
“In the past, we stopped breeding long season cotton because by the time you reached August, the boll weevil would eat you up. We developed short, determinate plants that have 12 to 14 fruiting branches instead of 48. I’m not proposing that we grow plants that mature that late. I am proposing that we need to examine exactly what we need to be growing. What does the best job for the least input?
“Let’s cross the genes of the older varieties into ones we’re growing today. You try to get the best attributes of both into one. It’s possible to breed a longer-season variety that will have much superior fiber quality.”