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New Cotton Strain to Raise Output by 25%

A major cotton-growing breakthrough has made China the first country in the world to commercialize a cotton strain that is resistant to bollworms and is expected to increase output by 25 percent.


The cotton strain was pioneered by scientist Guo Sandui and his team at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The breakthrough won wide acclaim from officials and experts.


Vice-Minister of Agriculture Fan Xiaojian and a group of government officials and experts inspected Guo's experimental base in Beijing's Pinggu District on Saturday.


Building on his success of insect-resistant, genetically modified cotton, of which 2.3 million hectares worth were planted this year, Guo's research team started to work out a molecular breeding system for hybrid cotton in 1999.


After years of hard work, Guo, "the father of Chinese Bt transgenetic cotton," was able to have his "Yinmian 2" cotton strain approved by the National Crop Cultivar Assessment Committee, which gave the go-ahead for its commercialization, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.


The "three-line hybrid cotton with insect-resistant gene," if planted on the 3.33 million hectares of land where it is fit to grow, will theoretically increase output by 1 million tons each year.


That amounts to what conventional strains might be able to yield on 666,600 hectares, which is equivalent to all the cotton fields in the Yangtze River Delta, a major cotton producing area, Fan said.


The "three lines" refer to the male-sterile, maintenance and restorer lines in cotton breeding.


Through genetic engineering and conventional breeding, Chinese scientists have manipulated these lines to ensure a hybrid cotton strain that maintains and multiples hybrid heterosis, leading to high quality and high yields, said Zhang Rui, one of Guo's aides.


In addition, the strain's insect resistance efficiency is more than 90 percent, Zhang added.


Guo's "Yinmian 2" and other strains in the pipeline will enable China to use less acreage to reach its cotton production goals, leaving more cropland for grain production, Fan said.


The United States began "three-line hybrid cotton" research in 1948, but has failed to find a solution to ensure a desirably high yield of hybrid cotton, let alone a hybrid resistant to pests.


Other major cotton growers, such as India, develop hybrid cotton through laborious and inefficient manual breeding methods, according to Guo.


Yuan Longping, the "father of hybrid rice", said that he had visited both the US and India to see their hybrid cotton breeding programs in the 1980s and 90s.


"I believe China's 'three-line hybrid cotton with insect-resistant gene' is really a world breakthrough," Yuan told China Daily. "Even in its initial stage, it can boost cotton production by 25 percent. This is a great feat."


Yuan also urged the ministries of agriculture, science and technology as well as the National Development and Reform Commission to shore up investment and spread the technology nationwide to benefit farmers.


On the potential environmental side effects of genetically engineered crops, Luo Bin, an official with the ministry, said only genetically modified strains assessed as safe are granted certificates for commercialization.


However, monitoring should continue after a new crop is certified and spread to large areas of land, he said.


Fan said his ministry will work to translate the "encouraging technology" into productivity as soon as possible.


He noted domestic demand for cotton has been on the rise in recent years, while imports keep flooding in.


Last year, market demand for cotton grew by 1.5 million tons, hitting 8.75 million tons. Imports surged to a record 1.98 million tons, he said.


(China Daily September 19, 2005)


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