After more than three decades of research, an Indian variety of coloured cotton may be commercially released by 2021. A decision will be taken once the last phase of the agronomy trials is over by next year, according to AH Prakash, project coordinator of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research-All India Coordinated Research Project on Cotton.

The final stage of the trials will end by April 2021 and a few promising seeds will be proposed for commercial release by a committee chaired by the deputy director-general of crop science, ICAR.

While the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, and the ICAR-Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, have been engaged in sustained research and developed varieties of naturally-coloured cotton, a commercial release has been stalled on the pretext that it can contaminate white cotton. However, there is a boost from the current government and the ICAR for coloured cotton since 2017, when its field trials were included in the All India Coordinated Research Project on Cotton.

As colour dyes pollute more water bodies and damage the environment, the search for fabric that is naturally coloured and can be grown organically (as cotton uses a lot of pesticides) has gained momentum.

“The Gossypium arboreum (desi) coloured cotton as such is not spinnable (by machines),” Prakash told Mongabay-India. “It is only the colour gene that the scientists are transferring through conventional breeding to cultivated species to improve the quality, colour, stability and yield.”

“The wild cottons also are shy bearers (low yielding) and crossing them with the stabilised cultivated cotton improves their yield,” he explained.

Under the All India Coordinated Research Project, four to five coloured cotton lines (seeds under pre-release trials) are showing promise. They have been evaluated for abiotic/biotic stress, diseases, water requirement, stability, colour and yield. They are good yielders at an average of 10 to 15 quintals a hectare (one quintal equals 100 kg) and their fibre strength is being tested by the Central Institute for Research on Cotton Technology, Mumbai. Since the coloured cottons being developed are varieties, farmers can reuse the seeds each year, he added.

To begin with, the All India Coordinated Research Project will recommend coloured cotton cultivation in niche areas or isolated places, which have a provision for separate ginning and processing. State governments are expected to manage this once the seed is commercially released, Prakash said. Each University can also tie-up with farmers or processing units for cultivation, weaving and manufacturing.

Graphic on Indian coloured cottons. Photo credit: University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad

Coloured cotton worldwide

Recently, an important breakthrough was achieved in Australia, and its $2-billion cotton industry is anxiously awaiting new research by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation scientists. The plant breeders here have genetically modified cotton to create coloured cotton in black and other rich, dark colours which could become a “game-changer” in the years to come.

Since the 1980s, California-based Sally Fox has made brown cotton famous the world over. China is already a leader in coloured cotton. However, of late the slave-factory style of production using Uighurs, has come under global censure.

Fox, who has spent 40 years commercialising coloured cotton in the US, told Mongabay-India via email, that she had spent her life pursuing the development of coloured cotton and did visit mills in India in the mid-1990s in the hopes of creating interest.

“So, sometimes things take longer than we expect them to,” she said. “I began breeding these cottons in 1982 with the hope of improving the spin-ability of the fibres so that they could be used in commerce. Everyone said that it could not be done. But I did it.”

“As I am sure your own breeders in India have discovered, it has great potential,” she said. “I do get the satisfaction of knowing that my life’s work is finally being taken seriously somewhere.”

In the US, she said she has never enjoyed any support other than from sales to her direct customers. No governmental assistance or support from any foundations or industry.

In India, about 40 coloured genotypes of upland cotton (G. hirsutum), mostly of various shades of brown and green colour are available in the National Gene Bank of Cotton maintained at the Central Institute for Cotton Research. These genetic stocks are indigenous collections as well as exotic accessions from the US, erstwhile USSR, Israel, Peru, Mexico, Egypt etc. In Asiatic diploid cottons (G. arboreum and G. herbaceum) about 10 germplasm lines possessing mostly light brown lint colour are also available.

India had coloured cotton all along

India is no stranger to coloured cotton and naturally-coloured dark brown cotton grew in Bengal, yellow-green in the Garo hills, and light pink in peninsular India. The desi cotton grown in Gollaprolu region of Andhra has a characteristic light pink colour and is known as yerra pathi (red cotton).

According to the Central Institute for Cotton Research, three coloured cotton varieties – Cocanda and two Red Northerns – were released for commercial cultivation in parts of Andhra Pradesh in the mid-1900s but work on coloured cotton was discontinued due to low yield and poor fibre properties.

Now, this is the focus since the 1990s and research in coloured cotton was in full swing in about 10 agricultural universities in south and central India. They were using material from ICAR-Central Institute for Cotton Research and the agricultural universities of Dharwad, Raichur, Surat, Nanded, Akola and Khandwa. The colours are a gradation from green to dark brown, and there are four to five distinctive colours, Prakash said.

Brown cotton lines from University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad are at the forefront in the All India Coordinated Research Project trials, said Rajesh Patil, principal scientist, University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad. He expects that one of its varieties, DDCC-1, will be proposed for release in 2021. University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad has nine other colour genotypes which are also doing well, he added.

DDCC1 Coloured cotton. Photo credit: University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad.

Much credit for this research goes to Manjula Maralappanavar, who worked from 1996 to 2014 as a cotton breeder and is now senior breeder at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad. She has published papers on her research and had developed DMB-225, a medium brown variety in 2013, along with three other varieties and also worked on DDCC-1.

DMB-225 was not released commercially on the grounds that it would contaminate white cotton, though its fibre quality was found highly suitable by the University of Agricultural Sciences textile department for machine spinning in 2010-’12, Maralappanavar told Mongabay India. She has submitted DMB -225 for field trials during 2020-’21 and she continues to improve upon the seeds.

In 2002, the University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad did have a limited commercial release of DDCC-1, an almond-coloured cotton variety, and 25 farmers cultivated it in Uppinbatigeri village.

The Khadi and Village Industries Board of Karnataka had a nearby unit, which wove the cotton and made shirts out of it, in a unique collaboration that did not last due to lack of funding. That research was sponsored by the Cotton Corporation of India.

BM Khadi, the senior scientist at the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwad, at that time (later director Central Institute for Cotton Research), told Mongabay India that DDCC-1 was going to be commercialised on a wider scale then, but there were fears of contamination and it was not notified as a variety, which is necessary for its release.

Another scientist at the forefront of coloured cotton research is Vinita Gotmare, principal scientist, ICAR-Central Institute for Cotton Research Nagpur. Gotmare works on the conservation and use of the hardy and resistant wild species of cotton which are not indigenous to India.

In the course of her research, she perfected a new genetic stock – Vaidehi 95 or MSH 53, and for the first time two wild species of cotton namely, G. raimondii and G.thurberi, were introgressed with G. hirsutum and G.barbadense. She has been working to improve its fibre properties.

Shades of brown more stable

Among coloured cotton genotypes, shades of brown are more stable than green genotypes which tend to fade when exposed to the sun. Gotmare said that Vaidehi 95 has good yield levels (17 to 18 quintals per hectare) and strong fibre properties and was tolerant to sucking pests and the pink bollworm. Prakash confirmed that Vaidehi 95, with its dark brown colour, was one of the promising lines in the All India Coordinated Research Project trials.

In fact, the lint from Vaidehi 95 was sent to Gopuri ashram at Wardha, two years ago, to hand spin and weave cloth. In addition, Central Institute for Research on Cotton Technology, Mumbai took up the task of testing the machine spinning of this cotton. Central Institute for Cotton Research now has a tripartite agreement with the Punjabrao Krishi Vidyapeeth, Akola and Central Institute for Research on Cotton Technology for large-scale seed production and value addition. The Central Institute for Research on Cotton Technology will support entrepreneurs to develop novel textile products through its incubation centre.

Coloured cotton in Gopuri Ashram in Wardha. Photo credit: Meena Menon

Fear of coloured cotton contaminating white has been deplored by scientists like KR Kranthi, former director Central Institute for Cotton Research, and now Technical Head, International Cotton Advisory Committee, University of Agricultural Sciences.

“Unfortunately, some scientists have been stalling all attempts to go ahead with an excuse that coloured cotton contaminates white cotton,” he said. “This argument has no merit whatsoever in a country like India where seed production is regulated. The fear of contamination is for seed production of white cotton varieties or hybrids.”

“Physical contamination of white cotton with coloured cotton at harvest ginning and marketing can easily be prevented,” he said. “Contamination in seed production is possible if coloured cotton is grown in close vicinity of the white colour cotton crop.”

“However, more than 90% of the seed production is carried out by private companies in isolated farms and the rest of the seed production of public sector varieties is done in seed farms that stringently follow Government guidelines to have an isolation distance of much more than the stipulated 50 metres from any source of contamination including a coloured cotton crop,” he explained.

Meanwhile, according to Patil, the Government of India was in the process of finalising a pilot-project on coloured cotton involving agricultural universities, cotton research and textile bodies, farmers and the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, Mumbai, National Textile Corporation Ltd. Mumbai and the Federations of Textile Industry and Farmers’ Co-operative Societies. This time around, with the government backing coloured cotton, the scenario may be promising for its release and cultivation.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.