S1036: Genetic improvement approaches to sustained, profitable cotton production in the United States
Statement of Issues and JustificationSustained, profitable cotton production (Gossypium hirsutum L. and G. barbadense L.) in the U.S. is under increasing pressure from a number of sources. Foremost among these is the competition that natural fibers are facing from synthetic fibers for the manufacture of yarns and textiles. Nearly as significant is a fundamental shift that has taken place in the market for cotton lint, viz. a viz. from a primarily domestically consumed product to one in which nearly two-thirds of U.S. production must compete successfully on the world market with cotton lint produced by overseas countries. To remain competitive with synthetic fibers and with other cotton producing countries, further improvements in the genetic potential for yield and fiber quality are needed.
Failure to address the needs of our producers and their customers will lead to a marginalization of cotton production in the U.S. and the loss of one of our most important agricultural exports. This loss would be exacerbated since the infrastructure of the cotton industry cannot be reapportioned like the grain industry. Cotton is the leading textile fiber and second most important oilseed in the world. Ranked second in world cotton production, the U. S. grows about 14 million acres of cotton per year, with acreage in all southern states, from Virginia to California and from Kansas and Missouri to the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. The U.S. cotton industry is a $25 billion/yr industry and generates over 400,000 domestic jobs that are critically needed in farm-based communities. Clearly, the cotton crop is a significant contributor to the U.S. economy, but especially to that of rural America.
Analyses of historical cotton yield data indicate that genetic gain or progress in increasing yield has declined over the past several years (Meredith 2006). There is not a consensus as to the underlying cause of this decline in genetic gain potential. Previous responses to this reduction in progress included the 5 to 10 yr delay often seen as a common feature in conventional plant breeding efforts and the decline in publicly funded research for the development of improved cotton germplasm and cultivars. Such research in the past has had a significant, positive effect on cotton improvement in both the public and private sectors. Germplasm development efforts are often long-term and have little profit potential and thus not attractive to the private sector. Policy, funding, and regulatory changes over the last decade have also had an impact on the development of improved cotton cultivars/germplasm. Many of the efforts devoted by public institutions such as State Agricultural Experiment Stations and the USDA-ARS to develop cotton cultivars have been suspended and emphasis placed on germplasm improvement and characterization, redirected to other research initiatives, or the positions have been eliminated as the result of budgetary constraints. While germplasm development within the public sector will have future positive impacts on cotton cultivar development, it continues to limit the availability of elite improved genetic material for direct use in the short term. Regulatory changes and legal protection of intellectual property continue to restrict the free exchange of germplasm necessary for swift future improvement.
A third suggestion is that the focus of the cottonseed industry on the addition of highly beneficial transgenic traits, such as Bt and herbicide-resistance, have come at a cost in research time and effort on the overall improvement of yield and fiber quality of new cotton cultivars. Also, the increased reliance of the seed market on private breeding activities and the merging of those firms with other agricultural support companies may leave the cotton industry vulnerable to the financial stability of a small number of commercial breeding programs.
Whatever the underlying causes, genetic improvement is the best choice for increasing yield and improving fiber quality, and thus enhancing profitability for producers, manufacturers, marketers, etc. The challenges that face the cotton industry transcend state boundaries and can be most economically and efficiently addressed by linking the public research institutions (federal and state) with their multidisciplinary skills, and in partnership with private cotton researchers through a multi-state research project.
Continued genetic gain in all economic aspects of cotton production will require the utilization of both applied and molecular genetic approaches focused on identification of genes responsible for traits of interest, characterization of and use of exotic germplasm to expand the genetic base from which genetic gain is possible, and the incorporation of genes coding for traits of interest into phenotypic constructs where desirable epistatic interactions are maximized. These approaches follow current, progressive research techniques that are being used in cotton and other species.
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