The stagnant cotton yields and erosion of fiber quality over the past decade could have easily have been predicted, according to cotton breeder Roy Cantrell.

Cantrell, who serves as vice president of agricultural research for Cotton Incorporated, says, “The development and commercialization of transgenic cotton took a massive back-crossing and breeding effort that left little room for sustained genetic gains in fiber quality and lint yield. By no means is this is a criticism of the seed companies, but when you relax selection for these complex traits in cotton breeding programs they change in negative directions.”

What's more, he says, the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. “As new transgene technologies emerge, breeders are facing daunting scientific challenges. For the first time in any crop plant, cotton cultivars containing three different transgenes will be at the core of cultivar development.”

Several things, he says, must be in place to guarantee that genetic gains are sustained for both fiber quality and yield. To that end, Cotton Incorporated has announced its new Cotton Breeding and Genetics Initiative.

The initiative will invest in cotton breeding research at public land grant universities and USDA research labs. “More than ever a strong germplasm development and enhancement effort must be sustained in the public sector,” Cantrell says. “Unfortunately, these public research facilities are facing severe budget problems that began decades ago with the erosion of cotton breeding programs.”

While Cotton Incorporated plans to invest its resources into improving both the yield and lint quality of the cotton varieties available to growers, it does not want to become a seed company. Instead, it wants to enable expanded research in the public sector, while also engaging private seed companies as technology partners. “We cannot tolerate or afford duplication, and we must avoid direct competition with seed companies and biotechnology companies,” he says.

Specifically, the initiative will focus on four target areas:

  • enhancement of germplasm,
  • development of a DNA marker for cotton,
  • establishment of a regional public cotton breeders testing network, and
  • establishment of a Cotton Incorporated Fellows program to attract new cotton scientists to land grant universities.

“A chronic problem has existed in the public institutions for the extended period of time and is only getting worse. There is an alarming shortage of future trained U.S. scientists in cotton breeding and genetics,” Cantrell says.

“Many public programs have been re-directed to molecular biology and genetic engineering, which ignores the strong complementary role these areas must have with conventional cotton breeding programs. All university resources are extremely strained at the present time due to shrinking state revenues and budgets.

“The most severe limitations to sustained genetic improvements in cotton are not the availability of transgenics to insert into cotton, nor public acceptance of GMOs, nor the regulatory issues surrounding future GMOs. It is the capacity of cotton breeders and the breeding sector to incorporate all the necessary future technology innovations into cotton cultivars into an affordable bag of seed in a timely manner for cotton producers,” he says.

Cantrell admits that the current problems facing the cotton industry developed over a long period of time and will not be fixed overnight. However, he says, “The problems and challenges facing cotton now and in the future require that we employ the newest technology innovations to improve fiber quality and profitability of cotton in the United States. We at Cotton Incorporated are committed to balanced research approaches based on sound science and collaboration with all sectors of the cotton industry. This is the only way we can achieve our mission of improving the profitability of U.S. cotton production.”