The quality of domestic cotton entering U.S. textile mills is on a downward spiral and no one is exactly sure why. "I don't mean to be offensive," said Stephen Felker of Avondale Mills, Monroe, Ga. "But I must express my personal concern, as well as the concern of most of my colleagues in the cotton textile business. Something is devaluing the quality of your fiber and it could not happen at a worse time."

Felker, participating on a cotton variety improvement panel at the opening session of the 2001 Beltwide Cotton Conferences, in Anaheim, Calif., said that over the last three years quality has trended down. He said micronaire has become too variable and too coarse for textile mill standards. In addition, staple length and strength are decreasing every year and uniformity is below standards as well.

At the same time, Felker noted, domestic mills are significantly increasing productivity through rapid technological advances.

For example, Avondale has taken about 1.1 million pounds of open-end spinning off the market and has converted that to ring spinning, which is more demanding in terms of fiber quality.

"The worldwide market is demanding more of these ring-spun yarns," Felker said. "I'm going to make them because I have to satisfy my customer. I have to come into the marketplace and buy the cotton from you to meet that technology."

Even faster looms are under development, according to Felker. "Vortex spinning requires such extremely high-quality fiber to perform that it requires the mill to go into the segment of the marketplace and bid for that cotton. That may limit the overall application of vortex spinning in the marketplace."

Felker said the outlook for U.S. textiles is promising. U.S. yarn and fabric exports reached a record in 2000 and there's an even better outlook for 2001.

But the role of U.S. raw cotton in this growth could shrink quickly, unless cotton qualities improve, he told attendees.

"If you are going to grow cotton, grow cotton that will allow these high-speed textile machines to do what they were built to do - maximize productivity and efficiency. Then, we can maximize our use of your cotton. But we must have cotton that can meet these requirements."

Felker proposed a new mill initiative "to close the gap between what growers make and what mills need. We are going to evaluate, on a commercial scale, cotton varieties from the major growing regions. We will run them on the various spinning platforms and tell you which varieties best meet our quality needs and which do not."

Felker said a list of preferred varieties would be made available to growers to help them make decisions on which cotton varieties to plant, but he stopped short of saying whether or not textile mills would provide monetary incentives to a grower for planting a variety high on the list. Participants in the project include USDA and Clemson University.

So what's causing the downtrend in quality? A lapse in breeding efforts, transgenics, the weather? Felker is unsure. "Genetically modified cotton may be addressing pest control and the impact of agriculture on the environment, but do you know with certainty that it is not hurting fiber quality? I am not convinced."

About 12 percent of world cotton is now planted in gene-modified varieties, Felker noted. "The International Cotton Advisory Council says that genetically modified cotton crops are likely to increase to 50 percent of the world crop in five to seven years. Move cautiously. You and I cannot afford a mishap when it comes to fiber quality."

Growers, too, are wondering if there is a connection between declines in quality, as well as yield, and the advent of transgenic varieties. "We've gotten into transgenics the last few years and this quality deterioration has occurred mostly in the last few years," said cotton producer Jack Hamilton, Lake Providence, La.

But seed companies say the declines can be traced to weather and the fact that a host of new varieties are being planted in the United States. They just happen to be transgenic varieties which are also being exposed to harsh environments.

"I don't have a discrepancy with what growers are saying," said Tom Kerby with Delta and Pine Land. "What we seeing is perception, and I've learned that what growers perceive is indeed fact. But we've had weather environments over the past three years that have had an impact. Secondly, the varieties that are being planted in the United States are not producing the same level of quality, independent of the environment, that they were four or five years ago. But our breeding programs are working on that."

"We've done studies on our varieties with and without the traits," added Fredrick Perlak, with Monsanto.