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Industry messengers take cotton's ag sustainability story on the road

Agriculture's latest buzzword “sustainability” probably has as many definitions as it does letters. Nevertheless, whatever it is is impacting agriculture from the turn row to the retail counter.

California wine grape growers have had a major sustainability push for several years and others are trying to meet a sustainability litmus test to mollify consumers.

Cotton is the latest crop to be called on the sustainability carpet, not yet by consumers but by people who buy cotton and make and sell textile products from the natural fiber. Fortunately, cotton doesn't have to invent sustainability, just prove it. This is the aim of a joint effort from Cotton Incorporated, the National Cotton Council and the Cotton Board.

The endeavor is to keep cotton on the shopping list of textile makers who are increasing their demand for fiber worldwide at the rate of 9 million cotton bale equivalents per year.

Cotton wants to have a good shot at that growth market and industry leaders are out to prove cotton is a good, sustainable agriculture actor, not the reputed bad actor of the past.

Cotton Incorporated's vice president for agricultural research, Roy Cantrell, admits cotton suffers from a history of misinformation about its use of pesticides, labor and water.

If enough misinformation is regurgitated, unfortunately, it becomes truth, explained Cantrell. This cycle of misinformation about cotton is having global implications. The world market is now the primary market for U.S. cotton with the downfall of the domestic cotton industry, therefore, it is important that U.S. cotton wear a white hat worldwide.

“U.S. cotton has a good story to tell,” said Cantrell:

  • It uses far fewer pesticides than in the past and has an enviable “environmental footprint,” a yardstick for measuring the impact of a crop's impact on the environment.

  • Cotton producers across the U.S. Cotton Belt have reduced pesticide applications from an average of six to an average of three over the past eight years. At the same time yields have gone up 25 percent.

  • A leading European laboratory has never detected pesticide residue on U.S. cotton.

  • Water use efficiency has increased 45 percent on the 35 percent of U.S. cotton farmed with irrigation.

  • More widely practiced conservation tillage has had a dramatically positive effect on the environment, reducing pollution and fuel consumption.

  • It takes far fewer man hours to produce a bale of U.S. cotton than before. Today it requires 3 man hours to generate a bale. Thirty years ago it took 24, and in 1920 it required 296 man hours to produce a bale.

  • It required almost 45 million acres of land to produce 18 million bales of cotton in 1926. In 2004 U.S. cotton farmers produced 23 million bales from just 14 million acres.

This cotton sustainability substantiation effort is in response to major retailers, manufacturers and importers sitting on the Cotton Board and in the industry as a whole, according to Cotton Board president William Crawford and Cotton Incorporated president Berrye Worsham.

Unlike the food market, consumers are not making cotton sustainability an issue — yet, said Worsham. The battleground for cotton's reputation is with manufacturers, retailers and importers worldwide.

However, he did not rule out a positive cotton sustainability message for consumers in the future.

Manufacturers, importers and retailers are the ones now needing convincing, and the presentation by Cantrell convinced them of that cotton has a good sustainability story to tell at recent meetings of key cotton industry groups, said Crawford.

“It resonated with both the Cotton Board and Cotton Incorporated boards,” Crawford said. These boards are made up of not only producers, but the people who make and market cotton textiles. Now the sustainable cotton story goes on the road to other groups.

Cantrell said telling cotton's positive environmental story is a “real opportunity to be proactive.”

Cantrell admitted that many of the positive sustainability factors have come from efforts by producers to reduce production costs while at the same time increasing yields. Unlike other cotton production areas, U.S. cotton producer practices are “totally transparent because in the U.S. we know what is used in producing cotton and how it is used.”

The push to hang a “sustainability” moniker on cotton is partly from the rising prominence or “organic” products. Organics are not a big part of the retail market, but garner considerable attention in the press.

Organic and sustainable are interchangeable in the minds of many manufacturers, retailers and consumers, but they are not the same. Organic cotton is a miniscule part of world cotton production, less than one-tenth of a percent of worldwide production. One containership could hold all the organic cotton produced in the world, 115,000 bales.

There is not enough organic cotton to appease those wanting organic cotton. Worsham admitted some manufacturers and retailers are using minute amounts — 5 percent — of organic cotton to capture the environmental consumer market. With little organic cotton available, U.S. cotton must prove to others it is the next best thing, sustainable.

“We must correctly define sustainability and keep that at the center of any discussion,” Cantrell said.

Organic is not equivalent to sustainable; and sustainable is not equivalent to subsistence farming, said Cantrell.

“Sustainability is equivalent to survival,” he emphasized.

Cotton is a good sustainable agriculture story largely due to cost-cutting efforts by producers, however, Cantrell warned that it takes stewardship to maintain sustainability and profitability.

The growing problem of weed resistance to herbicides, specifically glyphosate resistance in herbicide-resistant crops, is a result of producers “taking their eye off sustainability,” Cantrell said.

There are no “silver bullets” in farming and when growers “ignored” the issue of herbicide resistance with new herbicide-resistant crops, they took a step back in the sustainability march forward.

Growers need to follow stewardship recommendations of researchers and manufacturers for herbicide use and use in-furrow herbicides and rotate weed control active ingredients.

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