The U.S. cotton industry needs an infusion of new genetics to reverse a long-term trend of deteriorating yield and quality.

“At best, cotton yields have become stagnant,” says Dale Swinburn, chairman of the Plains Cotton Growers Association cotton improvement program. “The vast majority of cotton geneticists attribute the decline to lost genetics,” Swinburn said during the recent PCGA annual meeting in Lubbock, Texas.

He said all cotton varieties grown in the United States are closely related. “They're basically brothers and sisters. New varieties from Australia provide some variation, but it's still like a cousin to U.S. cotton.”

He also noted that only 44 breeders currently work on cotton in the United States. About one-third of those work in public research and two-thirds work for private companies. Public funds for cotton breeding amount to about $45 million a year.

Swinburn said a Cotton Incorporated initiative on improving cotton breeding may encourage more funding and more emphasis on cotton genetics.

Cotton Incorporated recently conducted a Beltwide survey that provides some guidelines to address the problem, Swinburn says.

“The survey included producers, ginners, seed companies, industry entities and associations, including PCGA.”

One problem, Swinburn says, is a tight bottleneck that delays variety development and release.

“We have to create a more efficient system to evaluate public genetics and wild cotton,” he said. “We also need to develop a standard set of DNA markers for cotton and encourage coordination among cotton breeders, including a germplasm exchange. We need to develop an annual breeder roundtable and a website to facilitate information exchange.”

“We have to create a more efficient system to evaluate public genetics and wild cotton.”

He says the DNA marker study is crucial to “speed backcrossing and new cotton breeding line development. This is an essential breeding tool, but DNA marker research for cotton lags behind other species. We need a publicly available DNA marker standard.”

He says an annual roundtable would bring private and public breeders together to discuss common needs and to share information. “Currently cotton breeding consists of a lot of fragmented efforts.”

Other needed initiatives include: A Cotton Incorporated fellowship program, an intellectual property task force, and initiatives to “kick start biotechnology research.”

Swinburn says the industry needs to expand the narrow public germplasm base and boost the public cotton breeding program.

He says the industry needs an infusion of new talent as well as new genetics. “The average age of our cotton breeders is 55,” he says. “We need to attract young, talented students into the industry. A Cotton Incorporated fellowship program would bring in 10 to 15 Ph.D. students for a three to five year tenure.”

Swinburn said biotechnology studies offer promise for the cotton industry. “Efforts in the early generation stage will mean less time back-crossing,” he said.

He said a research and development website could focus on yield and quality issues.

Intellectual property rights will be a ticklish issue, Swinburn said. He said a task force should determine how to protect those rights and still remove bottlenecks to cotton variety development.

He said improvements of synthetic fabrics makes cotton breeding even more imperative. “Molecular modeling of synthetics, for instance, is a threat to our industry.”

Swinburn says public funding for cotton breeding will be essential to improve yield and quality. “We need more research funds.”

“We also need to develop a standard set of DNA markers for cotton and encourage coordination among cotton breeders, including a germplasm exchange.”

Swinburn says Cotton Incorporated has $1.5 million earmarked for new initiative funding for the 2002 budget. Part of that will be for the fellowship program to attract bright young people.

e-mail: ron_smith@intertec.com