BWEP, transgenics may force cotton management makeover

This article is based on recent discussions with Hal Lewis, now retired and living in Doddridge, Ark. Lewis' peers recently honored him for his many years as a successful cotton producer, ginner, and geneticist and for being a voice of reason and leadership in the cotton industry, by naming him to the Arkansas Agriculture Hall of Fame.

If you stay in the cotton business long enough, you'll figure out what Arkansan Lotus Bixby meant years ago when he said, “The only cure for five-cent cotton is five-cent cotton.” What he meant was, if you ignore a problem long enough and don't implement a viable solution, the problem is likely to resolve itself — quite often to the detriment of those who continued on their merry ways, ignoring the problem.

Fortunately, in the first third of 20th century, agricultural researchers didn't ignore a problem that was evolving into a cotton industry catastrophe — the boll weevil. The solution was nothing less than a complete management makeover.

To survive, producers had to abandon the longer-season, more indeterminate varieties that predominated in coastal plains regions and grow more compact, less indeterminate, earlier-fruiting, shorter-season varieties that promised reasonable yields when grown on narrower rows in upland regions.

The strategy worked, but occasionally per-acre profit still felt the pinch when producers had to purchase pesticides to control the boll-puncturing pest.

One problem was resolved, but others remained. Although not as devastating as it had been, the boll weevil still had the potential to puncture billfolds as well as bolls.

Nevertheless, over succeeding decades, average yields continued on a generally upward trend, irrigation capability expanded, and domestic consumption was robust. Producers dealt with the boll weevil problem when forced to, but it had become just another cost-of-doing-business issue, not a threat of annihilation.

In time, however, another set of agricultural researchers chose not to ignore boll weevils. They proposed a long-term, systematic eradication and maintenance strategy that would attack the pest all across the Cotton Belt, from the Atlantic to the Rockies. The boll weevil eradication program would become a smashing success.

There was yet another management milestone in the making, the introduction of a transgenic variety, NuCotn 33B, in the mid-1990s. Industry old-timers who thought they'd seen it all were amazed. In a production environment vastly different from the one they had known, a cotton farmer could plant designer varieties that eliminated much of the worry and fuss of controlling worms, and at the same time, avoid forking over a big chunk of potential profit for methyl parathion, thanks to the boll weevil eradication program.

The euphoria arising from these technological tours de force didn't last long. USDA data from the mid-1990s to the millennium's earliest years painted a sobering picture: Yields nosedived. In 1996, average yield in the United States. was a little over 700 pounds per acre; by 1999, it was down to a little over 500; by 2002 it hadn't quite climbed back up to 600 per acre.

While many blamed this decline on a genetic base that was significantly narrowed when producers flocked to the transgene bandwagon, astute observers recognized that there was still a wide genetic base, but producers simply weren't growing it.

Rocket scientist credentials weren't needed to comprehend that one particular variety is not flexible enough to be grown in different environments with the expectation that the outcome will be uniformly successful.

Fortunately, seed breeders and research scientists saw the problem and solved it by developing a much wider selection of transgenic varieties. Respectable yields returned, and have even improved in recent years.

Ironically, their solution obviated some parts of the management strategy their colleagues had developed decades earlier to fend off cotton's demise at the hands of — or rather the snouts of — boll weevils. Realizing that BWEP had made “buggy whip” an anachronistic term that once described cotton limbs bearing bolls that had been turned into “hickory nuts” by weevils, they ushered in longer-season, more indeterminate, big, branchy transgenic varieties that, sans Anthonomus grandis, would mature harvestable bolls on the plant periphery.

As so often happens, solutions to problems beget problems. Now that some varieties produced lint that spindles could snatch from locks beyond the core crop boll positions, yields stood a much better chance of being enhanced. Growers could avoid “putting all their eggs in one basket” by choosing from a smorgasbord of more diversified genetics combined with transgenes, and tailor their combination of varieties to region, soil types and preferred production techniques.

Better yields, yes … but what about quality? With the new cultivars, fiber parameters such as micronaire and strength were still as important as they had always been, but the primary focus of attention had become the deteriorating uniformity index, referred to less euphemistically as short fiber content.

When more cotton comes from bolls that had to mature in much cooler, and perhaps wetter weather than “money-position” bolls, length uniformity is bound to be negatively affected.

Minimizing variance in fiber length isn't a worthwhile goal if doing doesn't pay. But if an annual U.S. harvest exceeds 20 million bales, the bulk of the crop must be presented to export markets that pick and choose based on the Liverpool “A” index, which mandates a staple of 36, two increments longer than the U.S. base staple of 34.

In the best of all cotton-producing worlds, producers would enjoy a sure-fire, profit-generating combination of yield and quality. In the real world, however, yield is not the primary concern of markets; they're interested in cotton's value, predicated largely by quality. This is especially true of the export market, which in a larger sense is the market.

For the U.S. cotton industry to develop a good plan for the future, it must know for certain where it is now. To know where it is now, it must know how it got there. And how it got to where it is now resulted largely from solving problems … and solving the problems those problems generated.

All this leads to looming questions that must be addressed.

Should producers, researchers, seed companies, and everyone else involved reexamine cotton genetics, and should management be reexamined in light of the effects of boll weevil eradication?

Is yet another major management makeover mandated?

Jimmy Reed is a retired Mississippi Delta cotton farmer, “who lived to tell about it.” He recently published a collection of short stories, Boss, Jaybird and Me, and is working on a second. He works as a newspaper columnist, freelance writer and part-time teacher at the University of Mississippi. He resides in Oxford, Miss.

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