Some dozen years after introduction, farmers have embraced biotechnology as an effective and efficient part of their crop management strategies and claim reduced pesticide use, decreased trips across fields (and resultant energy savings) and no yield drag from transgenic varieties.
They have more too look forward to, says Jane Dever, cotton breeder at the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center in Lubbock.
Dever addressed the Sourcing USA Summit recently in Austin and said biotechnology for cotton “is beyond the first generation of value-added plants” that began with resistance to over-the-top herbicides and Lepidoptera insect pests.
Improved agronomic traits, food and feed quality enhancements, industrial products and functional foods are on the horizon, Dever said. “We're looking closely at water and energy (efficiency) and stress management.
“Fiber quality will be the third wave,” she said. “We want longer fiber with better strength.”
Cotton breeders are looking at ways to change cotton fibers without changing “the look and feel” of cotton. She said changing chemical properties may improve dyeability. Adding wrinkle resistance and flame retardant characteristics also make the wish list.
“We have opportunities for yield enhancement, new fiber types, and environmental stress tolerance,” Dever said. “Yield enhancement and stress tolerance will be next. Nitrogen efficiency is one of the avenues we're exploring.” Salt tolerance is another possibility.
Conventional breeding will continue to play a role in improving cotton. “We'll combine traditional research with biotechnology,” she said.
Nanotechnology also may capitalize on cotton's fiber qualities, said Brian Francois, business director for Pulcra Chemicals, LLC.
“Cotton is the best fiber for nanotechnology treatment,” Francois said. “It's natural, absorbent, permeable, and reactive. That combination makes it the most desired fiber.”
He said the textile industry provides several opportunities for nanotechnology. Possibilities include stain and odor resistance, ULV protection and wrinkle resistance. “Surface area is the key. One teaspoon of nano particles equals the surface area of ten soccer fields. These particles are designed to self-assemble into the fiber.”
He said carbon, an abundant, stable, versatile, absorbent, and both conductive and semi-conductive material, also holds promise for nanotechnology. Nano carbon tubes, made from nano carbon fibers, which are 10 times lighter and 500 times stronger than steel, offer numerous uses.
“The textile industry is leading the way in nanotechnology,” Francois said. “And cotton is the ideal fiber. Think small: it's the future.”
He said companies in Europe already use nano technology in textile manufacture.
“It's exciting,” said Monty Christian, director of Cotton Technology and Fiber Business for Bayer CropScience, and a member of a technology panel at the summit. “We're looking at in-plant solutions combined with nanotechnology.”
“Without nanotechnology and biotechnology, we probably wouldn't be gathered here today,” said Wally Darnell, president and CEO of the Plains Cotton Cooperative Association in Lubbock.
Darnell said biotechnology has had a profound effect on West Texas cotton farmers. “Because of biotechnology, West Texas cotton producers get $300 to $400 more per acre. We hope in the future that biotechnology will allow us to put some characteristics in cotton that are in synthetics.”
John Purcell, Cotton Technology lead for Monsanto, said biotechnology has helped more than the farmer's bottom line. “Increased productivity per acre means a reduced effect on the environment,” he said.
That productivity likely will get even better, Christian said. “Technology will be there. We believe the potential in the cotton genetic code is unlimited. Mapping the genetic code will be a breakthrough.”
Darnell said the possibility of using nano sensors to target crop inputs also offers opportunity for farmers.
Francois said the nano carbon tubes may be useful moisture sensors.
The panel said global acceptance of the two technologies continues to present a challenge. The regulatory environment may affect the next wave of products, which will be different as they substitute technology for crop protection chemistry.
“Acceptance is high on the farm level,” Purcell said. “But we continue to see political barriers in spite of the safety information.”