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Cotton’s sustainability shouldn’t focus on organic vs. conventional

It has been fashionable in recent years to knock production agriculture, and cotton in particular has been the target of critics who contend its environmental “footprint” makes it unsustainable long term.

Many huge retailers, including Wal-Mart, are beginning to make sustainability a part of their marketing campaigns, the implication often being that, to be sustainable, the product must be “organic.”

Not so, counters Berrye Worsham, president and CEO of Cotton Incorporated, the research promotion organization funded mainly through producer checkoff funds.

Cotton is being attacked on a number of fronts — environmental, trade, government subsidies, etc. — he said at the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in New Orleans, “but the information is distorted, and we don’t want it to result in harm to U.S. cotton. If we don’t correct the misinformation, the myths will become fact by default.”

The terminology skirmishes, he said, should not be between conventional cotton and organic cotton, but rather between all cotton and synthetic fibers, the biggest competitor for U.S. cotton.”

The interest in sustainability at the retail, brand, and mill level is real, Worsham says, and there are opportunities for cotton, but, “Our goal is to set the record straight and prevent companies from going down a path that will ultimately be detrimental to them, as well as to cotton.”

The biggest opportunity for cotton, he says, is “framing the discussion so it will be one of cotton vs. chemical synthetic fibers — not one of production agriculture vs. organics.”

Tremendous changes are taking place in production agriculture, Worsham says, with reduced inputs resulting in increased environmental benefits. “One of the challenges we continue to face is countering the perception that to have sustainability, it must be organic. The reality is that both organic and modern agriculture can be sustainable.”

In 2006, Cotton Incorporated and the National Cotton Council were engaged in a number of high profile meetings with companies about the sustainability of cotton. And CI began a life cycle assessment of cotton, looking at its environmental footprint from planting to its ultimate disposal.

Cotton advantages

“For example, cotton has significant advantages over our (synthetics) competition in energy use, water, and toxicity.”

These are important considerations, Worsham says, given that the world demand for textile fibers is growing 3 percent to 4 percent annually.

“Through modern technology, cotton has been able to supply its share of this growing fiber demand with virtually no increase in land — all of the increase has been supplied through higher yield.

“We’re producing about a third more cotton today than in the 1920s, but we’re using only about one-third as much land. From 1996-2004, cotton’s production footprint on the environment has been reduced by 17 percent, while we’ve produced 25 percent more cotton.”

The greening of the economy, Worsham says, will require more recordkeeping and documentation of cotton’s sustainability, which can in turn bring greater benefits.

“Creating a positive image for U.S. cotton is among the most important reasons to continue this process, particularly in the export market. We should continue to measure and communicate the benefits of modern technology on U.S. cotton and to improve its environmental footprint.”

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