It’s rare when a plant breeder goes from developing genetically modified crops at a major biotechnology company to breeding varieties for organic and non-GMO farmers. Jane Dever, associate professor at Texas A&M’s AgriLife Research and Extension Center, is unique in having done just that. As global cotton breeding manager for Bayer CropScience, Dever put genetically modified or (GM) traits into cotton plants. Now she focuses on keeping GM traits out of organic cotton varieties.
Dever prefers the latter role. “I am just very comfortable here,” she says. “This is a great opportunity to work for Texas cotton producers and the more than 90 percent of U.S. organic cotton producers located on the Texas High Plains.”
At Bayer, Dever became frustrated with the focus on developing plants as “projects” with a distinct beginning and end as opposed to breeding, which she sees as a process.
“What a lot of folks don’t understand is that ‘breeding’ and ‘GM trait development’ are two entirely different things,” she says. “It did not take long to understand that companies like these are not in the seed business unless they can realize growth from GM traits.”
Dever says she gained valuable experience at Bayer but says: “My heart is with breeding, genetic diversity, and genetic resource preservation.”
When the cotton breeding position at Texas A&M AgriLife opened in 2008, Dever “took a leap of faith” and accepted it, backed by support from Texas farmers, the National Institute for Food and Agriculture’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative, and the Texas Organic Cotton Marketing Cooperative (TOCMC).
At AgriLife Dever has focused on breeding organic cotton varieties that have improved fiber quality, drought tolerance, resistance to thrip pests, and bolls that can handle Texas’s nasty sandstorms and extreme weather. Preserving genetic resources from unintended GMO contamination is another goal of Dever’s research.
An estimated 15,685 acres of organic cotton was planted in the U.S. in 2013 with more than 95 percent of that grown on the High Plains of West Texas. North Carolina has also emerged recently as a producer of organic cotton.
Keeping GMOs out of non-GMO and organic cotton is a challenge because—as with corn and soybeans—GMO varieties account for more than 90 percent of production in the U.S.
The three major companies that sell cottonseed—Monsanto, Bayer CropScience, and Dow AgroScience—don’t offer non-GMO varieties.
Non-GMO cottonseed options are even more limited than they are for corn and soybeans.
Dever often receives inquiries on where to find non-GMO seeds, especially since the spread of herbicide resistant weeds, which are devastating cotton fields in the South. The Roundup Ready GMO trait is also so widespread in cottonseed that it is difficult for plant breeders like Dever to keep it out of her organic varieties.
“The problem for non-GM or organic breeders in a crop where biotechnology traits have been intensively adopted is that potential contamination is not visible,” Dever says. “Even the smallest amount of unintended contamination can multiply during the crossing, plant selection, and even testing phase if you do not know it is there.”
Tests to detect GMO traits can also be expensive.
Another aspect of Dever’s research is developing a fast, economical method to screen organic cotton for the Roundup Ready GMO trait. Seed Matters, an initiative that supports organic seed breeding projects, provided a $125,000 fellowship to Texas Tech graduate student Ryan Gregory to develop the method.
“If he can help devise a practical method to nip contamination in the bud, it will be of interest to every public cotton breeder,” Dever says. “Seed growers and farmers can maintain purity reasonably well if their beginning seed stocks are free from unintended presence of GM traits.”
Testing of the new organic cotton varieties began in 2011 on TOCMC members’ organic farms. The results so far are encouraging. “We saw a 30 – 40 percent reduction in insect damage from thrip, which is a major pest problem in organic cotton production,” Dever says.
She plans to release an organic cotton variety for farmers next year and aims to get an agreement with All-Tex Seed, a regional cottonseed company that offers non-GMO varieties and will process the organic cotton varieties.
The varieties could also be used in non-GMO cotton production. “The (research) results are applicable in many cases to conventional, non-GMO production,” Dever says.
She emphasizes that breeding is a process that takes time. “It’s a long-term thing. Once you get a variety, farmers can follow best management practices with isolation guidelines, but they have to start with clean seed. Their challenge is my challenge.”
Dever is also happy to be preserving genetic diversity. “The non-GM market is small and certainly under-served, which is exactly why it is where I focus as a public breeder,” she says. “It is not ‘picking up crumbs’ left from private sector crop development, which is short-sighted, but rather continuing the work needed to ensure genetics will do its part to address global resource issues.”
A version of this post appeared on The Organic & Non-GMO Report.