Cotton Breeding Australia marks a decade of better cotton

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The third week of August 2017 marked the 10th anniversary of Cotton Breeding Australia, a successful joint venture between two independent bodies: CSIRO and Cotton Seed Distributors (CSD).  

Since 2007, the targeted research fund has invested $101.7 million into developing future cotton varieties for Australian growers, and has a projected shared investment of more than $175 million by 2024.

The program was established to safeguard the future of Australia’s cotton industry via long-term breeding and research projects.

According to CSD Managing Director Peter Graham, the CSIRO-CSD partnership, which began nearly half a century ago, in 1971, is of crucial importance to Australia’s cotton industry.

“The Cotton Breeding Australia joint venture formalised and strengthened a long and effective partnership,” Graham said. “Through CSD, CSIRO has released 113 cotton varieties to date – varieties which are high-yielding, high-quality, disease-tolerant, widely adaptable and highly sought-after globally by cotton mills.

“One hundred percent of the varieties grown in Australia today originate from CSIRO-bred material.”

The Cotton Breeding Australia model was a terrific example of collaborative research funded funded by industry, contended Director of CSIRO’s Agriculture division Dr John Manners

“Both CSIRO and CSD recognise the importance of investing in innovation to ensure a robust and profitable cotton industry in Australia, today and well into the future,” he said.

“No other organisation in the world has been able to achieve the level of cotton research coordination and nationally beneficial research outcomes as those delivered through the Cotton Breeding Australia joint venture.”

Losses avoided

In 2014, CSIRO commissioned an independent assessment of the economic, social and environmental impacts and value of the Cotton Breeding Australia joint venture. 

The assessment, conducted by ACIL Allen Consulting, showed that without the research conducted by CSIRO scientists under the Cotton Breeding Australia program, the nation’s cotton farmers would likely have suffered losses in productivity and an overall decline in cotton yields stemming from pests’ resistance to insecticides.

Australian growers, the assessment concluded, would have become reliant on imported cotton varieties not tailored to local conditions that would not have been sufficiently tolerant to cotton diseases common in Australia, such as Bacterial blight and Verticillium wilt

Past and future benefits

ACIL Allen’s assessment found that CSIRO’s research into cotton varieties delivered net benefits, in terms of increased cotton productivity, of $149.3 million between 2006-07 and 2013-14.

It also forecast a number of expected benefits from Cotton Breeding Australia projects, notably:

  • an additional future benefit of $379.5 million over the 10 years from 2014 to 2024, based on increases in yield; and
  • further benefits flowing from improved water-use efficiency, reduced pesticide needs and increased international trade opportunities.

Developing ‘native traits’ to boost resistance

It can take up to 14 years from initial crossing of strains to the commercial release of a new variety of cotton, requiring long-term commitment and funding.

Since 2009, CSIRO scientists have been exploring the natural resistance of cotton to Australian conditions, and have developed ‘native traits’ that can be bred into cotton to boost its tolerance to various insect pests and diseases.

Eight years on, the first of these native traits is about to reach the commercialisation stage: it is tolerance to Cotton bunchy top (CBT), a viral disease spread by cotton aphids that has potential to cause significant yield losses.

A severe outbreak of CBT in Australian cotton crops in 1998-99 caused losses estimated to total around AU$70 million.

Currently, large-scale plantings of the new, bunchy-top-tolerant varieties are being evaluated on CSD’s research farm near Wee Waa, in New South Wales; the first output from this technology could be ready for commercial release as early as the 2018-19 cotton-growing season.

Cotton Breeding Australia is conducting similar research into host-plant resistance to several other diseases with potential to impact cotton crops across the country, including:

About CSD

Cotton Seed Distributors Ltd. (CSD), formed half a century ago by Australia’s foundation cotton growers, has been supplying quality cotton-planting seed to the industry ever since.

CSD is a major investor in cotton breeding, research and development, in partnership with the CSIRO Cotton Breeding Program.

The organisation’s goal is twofold: to deliver elite varieties, bred and adapted specifically to suit local growing conditions; and to help growers achieve yield and quality outcomes that will keep Australia’s cotton industry “at the premium end of the global fibre market”.

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