AUBURN, Ala. - Packaged seed is one of many technological advances that have taken cotton farming by storm in recent years, but it also may have sealed the fate of several older cotton practices.
Packaging, in this case, doesn't refer to the seed's container but to what is included in the seed: traditional breeding for high yields, quality and disease resistance; transgenic engineering that provides herbicide or insect resistance; and, finally, agrochemical seed treatments added to prevent seedling disease or early insect damage.
Revolutionary? Without a doubt. The huge advances in seed technology have freed growers of much of the stress that accompanied planting time.
Still, while it's freed them in many respects, some wonder whether the technology has limited their choices in other ways.
“No one would deny that treated seed has been highly successful,” says Bob Goodman, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System economist and Auburn University associate professor of agricultural economics. “We have between an 80 and 90 percent adoption rate in Alabama for transgenic cotton alone.”
Even so, there has always been a minority of cotton growers who insist on planting conventional cotton either because it saves them money or because it affords a measure of management flexibility often not possible with packaged varieties, he says.
Therein lies the problem, Goodman says. The phenomenal success and growth of packaged seed, he fears, ultimately will crowd out what remains of conventional seed, bringing an end to many once common cotton practices.
One long-standing practice, for example, is brown bagging or holding back seed saved from the previous year's crop for cleaning, bagging and replanting - a practice that not only was permitted but safeguarded by the Plant Variety Protection Act passed in 1970.
Yet, that practice is being undermined by a new interpretation of the law that allows seed companies to patent their varieties - a practice that prohibits the brownbagging of seed.
“What this means is that farmers who are currently brownbagging cotton seed - saving their seed and having it cleaned, delinted and repackaged for planting next year - are pretty much going to be out of luck when all the seed varieties are patented,” Goodman says.
While conceding that seed companies have every right to protect what they have developed through patenting, especially transgenic varieties, he worries about the effect this will have on the minority of farmers who simply choose not to plant treated seed.
“There is a real challenge here. What's going to become of farmers who just don't want to buy into packaged seed? Don't we, those of us involved in the public sector, have an obligation to provide them with the chance to buy conventional seed through some other avenue?”
Goodman believes the answer to that question is yes. But this raises yet another question: How? Will the benefits associated with treated seed completely overshadow and ultimately eliminate conventional seed as an option in a few more years?
One thing is for sure, he says: For the land-grant university plant breeders who conceivably could fill this void, the challenges will become harder with each passing year.
“Any good plant breeder will tell you that his or her profession is as much an art as a science. So, who knows? Maybe some variety developed by one of these scientists will make it feasible for that small minority of growers who want to keep using conventional seed. But the odds are against it,” Goodman says.
Because of the onward march of technology, plant breeders have a tremendous handicap in their race with seed companies to develop new varieties, Goodman says.
“Not only must they beat the varieties that are already out there. They've also got to beat those that are under development five years in the future by major seed companies.
“You could be given a five-year start on these companies and still fail unless you're very lucky.”
Jim Langcuster is a writer for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.