The transgenic freight train that barreled through the U.S. Cotton Belt in the mid-90s drove right through the California station.

However, the train is coming back around again with an even bigger load of newer biotechnology. It will stop in California this time, according of Roy Cantrell, vice president of agricultural research for Cotton Incorporated.

The question is will the transgenic traits it drops off for use in San Joaquin Valley cotton carry the unwanted baggage the rest of the U.S. Cotton Belt got on the first trip through.

Cantrell, former New Mexico State University cotton breeder who has worked closely with Acala and Pima cottons, did not mince his words at the 6th Pima Production Summit in Visalia, Calif.: Fiber quality suffered in all areas of the cotton Belt — except California — when the first round of transgenic traits were put into many U.S. cotton varieties.

Cantrell is not anti-biotechnology. It holds tremendous potential to help producers grow cotton cheaper, he said, and now using DNA marker technology it holds great promise to actually improve cotton fiber quality.

Nevertheless, fiber quality suffered at the expense of biotechnology during the first wave of transgenics, a pitfall he said California must avoid at all cost.

California has an unparalleled reputation for the highest quality uplands (Acala) and Pima cottons in the U.S. “You are fortunate here in a California that you have had a very successful, long history of sustained improvement and preservation of identifiable quality,” he said. “It is quite admirable.” He gave credit for it to the San Joaquin Valley Cotton Board and Supima.

“That kind of quality preservation is extremely important in the export markets we deal with today,” he added.

Avoided stagnation

Over the past decade, California has not seen stagnation of yields and erosion of fiber quality experienced by the rest of the cotton belt, he said.

He warned, however, that taking that for granted can lead to disaster in what he said is a rapidly changing cotton world.

“California is on the verge of wide scale transgenic adoption. You are where the rest of the belt was in the early 1990s,” he said.

The first wave of transgenic centered around two biotechnology traits, worm resistance using a Bt gene and herbicide resistance. There was no economic incentive to introduce that initial Bt gene into SJV Acala cottons because the worm pests it controlled were not a problem in central California.

The initial herbicide resistant technologies were introduced into some SJV cotton and as much as 40 percent of the valley has been planted to herbicide-tolerant cottons.

However, the next generation of Bt genes offer control for some of the worm pests like beet armyworm and cabbage looper that can cause damage SJV cotton.

However, the next generation of Roundup Ready cotton (“Flex”) is being eagerly awaited. It will widen the timing window for Roundup applications to later in the plant life. This is expected to be more popular in the irrigated West where the current Roundup Ready technology is viable only up to the fourth leaf, it can interfere with irrigation and cultivation. Cantrell predicts “massive adoption” of Roundup Ready Flex technology when it becomes available.

However, he warned “you cannot let quality erode in Pima and Acala cottons at a time when demand for your product is actually increasing,” said Cantrell.

“You cannot assume that just because you have good conventional varieties that when you put traits in them they will remain the same,” he said. “If you do not try to improve fiber quality at the same time you are introducing transgenics, fiber quality does not stay the same — it gets worse.”

There are two critical reasons to continuing improving California cotton fiber quality; one is increasing competition from manmade fibers edging ever closer to being cotton-like. And secondly, the rest of the U.S. Cotton Belt has rebounded from the fiber quality dip of the mid-90s and quality is once again inching toward SVJ staple length and strength.

Cotton Incorporated is spearheading a rejuvenation of public cotton germplasm development, an area Cantrell said has suffered for years, especially during the transgenic era. Research by USDA-ARS geneticist Mauricio Ulloa at the UC Research and Extension Center at Shafter, Calif., is part of that effort. CI is also helping fund work at UC Davis.

It will be an even bigger challenge for breeders to improve quality because cotton is on a “technology treadmill. There is more GMO material in cotton than any other commercial crop,” he said, and there will be more in the future, Cantrell predicting that there could be six or more different genes in the same cotton variety at the same time in the near future.

“Technology can be very beneficial…growers are demanding it…but you have to improve the variety at the same time,” he said.

The “Holy Grail” of cotton biotechnology is resistance to sucking insects like lygus and whitefly. Cantrell said there is promising basic research working toward that goal. That would be a major breakthrough in California and Arizona.

“Several biotech companies are making progress in this area,” said Cantrell.

“California is going down the right road” in continually improving Acala and Pima fiber qualities he said, but he added it is “easy to stop in the middle” when the transgenic train arrives in California. “I am optimistic you will be able to continuing advancing fiber quality as you have in the past”

e-mail: hcline@primediabusiness.com