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Time to set record straight on cotton's sustainability

Sustainability is the hot buzzword in the retail brand arena these days, yet many retailers haven't been able to agree on just what the term means for them.

U.S. cotton organizations are working to correct that situation, says Roy Cantrell, vice president of the agricultural research division of Cotton Incorporated, the research and promotion company funded by American upland cotton producers and importers of cotton and cotton textile products.

“One of the greatest misconceptions in the public's mind is that cotton today is grown as it was in decades past,” he said at a meeting of allied agribusiness leaders sponsored by Mississippi's Delta Council. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

A lot of things are being said about U.S. cotton that are “absolutely ridiculous,” Cantrell says, “and it's time we set the record straight about how our cotton is grown and its role as an integral — and sustainable — part of American agriculture.”

The retail trade and brands have focused a lot of attention recently to sustainability, often associating it with organic cotton, he says. Yet organic cotton “represents only .03 percent of U.S. production and .01 percent of world production. All the organic cotton produced in the world in 2005 would fit in the hold of a single, modest-size cargo ship.

“So there's something of a credibility gap when a major retailer says it's planning to use 5 million to 6 million tons of organic cotton, when only 25,000 tons were produced in 2005.”

There has been “a great deal of distortion” and “outdated or false data” about production practices for conventional versus organic cotton, Cantrell says. “This is especially dangerous if presented in the context of organic being equivalent to, or the only avenue to sustainability.

“Rather than a narrow focus on niche markets of organic cotton, retail and brands need to recognize that cotton is a natural, sustainable, and renewable resource, and encourage its use over synthetic chemical fibers. The alternative to conventional cotton won't be organic — it will be synthetics.”

And he says, organic production generally means higher costs, translating into premiums of 50 percent to 100 percent in raw fiber price.

Cotton Incorporated, the National Cotton Council, and Cotton Council International are targeting retail brands to get the message out “that cotton is sustainable, and to convey the positive environmental benefits of conventionally-grown cotton.

“We welcome this attention to sustainability,” Cantrell says. “It's an opportunity for cotton to be compared to man-made fibers and recognized as a natural, biodegradable, and renewable fiber.”

While major retailers are struggling to define sustainability, he says the cotton industry and cotton organizations have been working for more than a year to develop an environmental message about cotton that “is up-to-date, factual, and emphasizes cotton's sustainability.”

Any definition of sustainability must include three “pillars,” Cantrell says. They are:

  • Quality of life — to satisfy personal, family, and community needs for health, safety, food, and happiness.

  • Environment — to enhance finite soil, water, air, and other resources and protect them for future generations.

  • Economics — to be profitable.

“When these three pillars intersect, you're approaching a sustainable system,” he says. “Our definition of sustainability will hold up whether it's applied to west Texas or west Africa, and it can accommodate both conventional and organic cotton.”

Overemphasizing one component may adversely impact the others, Cantrell says, and sustainability may not be possible. “We need to be skeptical when someone talks about a very narrow focus of sustainability.”

While some major retailers are focused on organic cotton as a means to sustainability, he says a lot of the claims made about pesticide use in conventional cotton are misrepresented.

GMO varieties, more effective/lower dosage pesticides, no-till/minimum till, and precision application technology have resulted in substantial reductions in pesticide use, and lower energy/labor/water/nutrient use, while boosting cotton yields and giving consumers better value, Cantrell points out.

“Equally critical for sustainability is a government regulatory system that's transparent and carefully scrutinizes what's applied to the crop and how it's applied. The U.S. cotton industry stacks up well with the rest of the world when it comes to sustainability, and that's the message we're communicating.”

When the U.S. adopts new technologies, such as GMO varieties, the rest of the world quickly follows, Cantrell says. “The efficacy of these practices in the U.S. demonstrates that our cotton production is sustainable and becomes an incentive for the rest of the world to adopt these methods.”

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