Promiscuous Plants and the Future of Organic Cotton

Cotton seeds get around, be they pollinated by insects, blown out of a truck or ingested by an animal and deposited elsewhere. There is a downside to this when it comes to keeping organic cotton fields free of GMO varieties, but it turns out that being promiscuous also has its advantages.

 Jane Dever, Professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences Department at Texas A&M University, and located at the AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Lubbock, Texas, schools us on the birds and the bees and the future of organic cotton.

TWIZEL: You run a plant breeding program at Texas A&M AgriLife Research. What is the focus of the program?

JD: Since the early 1990s, biotechnology traits and the business around biotechnology traits began to dominate the cottonseed business, particularly in the US. The three major suppliers of cottonseed made very conscious business decisions to not sell any cottonseed that didn’t have a biotechnology trait in it. As a result, organic cotton farmers can no longer just go out and buy a bag of seed that is appropriate for their operations. I work on developing cultivars for organic cotton as well as improving cottonseed characteristics beyond biotechnology traits.

Organic cotton is such a small percentage of the cotton industry. If you grow a variety that doesn’t have very good quality or you suffer from environmental issues, it's hard for farmers to go somewhere else and get organic cotton that meets their quality standard. So the objective for our organic cotton project is to improve the quality and quantity of the fiber that comes from a cotton plant.

Right now we are focused on three primary projects: screening the germplasm of wild and ancestral cotton plants from all over the world for interesting native characteristics; developing appropriate cotton varieties for our farmers to use in their operations; and developing a cotton variety for organic production that looks different from the other commonly used cotton varieties.

TWIZEL: Why do you need a cotton variety that looks different from other varieties?

JD: Cotton in our area, whether it has a GMO trait in the variety or not, all looks the same. If organic growers produce organic cotton in areas that are great for organic production, the area will also be good for other types of cotton production. Farmers often have to share the land with growers that grow GMO cotton seed. It can be a challenge to make sure the organic cotton seed stocks are pure.

To test seed stock for a GM trait, you take a bulk of seeds and put an ELISA strip in—that's kind of like a pregnancy test that will show a little line—and you can detect if only one in 300 seeds has a biotechnology trait. If you get a line you need to decide if you reject the entire lot. If you reject it, you might not have any seed to plant because you can't go out and buy organic seed. The question becomes, how much is it? Is it one in a hundred seed? Is it 90 in a hundred seed? This can lead to very complex and complicated quality control strategies which are very expensive.

TWIZEL: How did you develop a variety that actually looks different from the other cotton varieties?

JD: I just got really frustrated and said, "Is there some morphological trait?" There are a lot of interesting morphological markers in cotton, like a red petal spot on the flower that can be bred into a variety, but very few markers occur before flowering. If you can't pull out the offending plants before flowering, it kind of defeats the purpose. Cotton can be quite promiscuous. In fact, I think I had no idea how promiscuous cotton was until we got into this coexistence crisis. There’s a bract shape that we considered, but unfortunately, it can be also attractive to insects. You don’t want that in organic cotton. So we decided to work with what’s called an okra leaf trait.

TWIZEL: How did you come to choose that specific trait?

JD: When I worked at Bayer, we accessed germplasm that had been bred by the Australian National Cotton Research Program (CSIRO). They had taken the okra leaf shape and successfully used it primarily in their rain-fed regions, ‘dry land’ where you don’t actually use irrigation water. Bayer sold a variety like that in South Texas and it did really well. I’ve been gone from Bayer for eight years now and they no longer work with this leaf type because it's difficult to produce pure because cotton is so promiscuous.

So I asked my friends at Bayer, my acquaintances at Monsanto and the guys at Dow if they were going to develop any okra leaf varieties and they all said, "No, we are not." I said, "Awesome. I think I will." If they give me any flak about it, I'm just going to smile my Mona Lisa smile because if they’re worried about getting an off-shaped leaf shape into their production fields, I can just tell them, "Welcome to my world. Now, you know how it feels to try to develop an organic cotton variety without your GE traits."

TWIZEL: Is the new cotton variety ready yet?

JD: We are currently working to get a core seed lot that is pure. They say it usually takes about twelve to fifteen generations to come up with a variety. We can usually do three generations in a year, so we should have lines that are ready for testing in two years. If we can get a homozygous okra leaf, then the farmers will be able to maintain that purity of organic cotton in their fields by looking at the plant, and pulling out the ones that don’t belong.

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